Date: Jan. 1, Noon ET on ESPN2
Location: Tampa, Fla. | Raymond James Stadium
Best moment: The Wildcats’ best moment came right at the beginning, as they upset Stanford 16-6 in the season opener. That served notice that this would be a different Northwestern team after the previous two years ended with 5-7 records. And Northwestern showed right away it would field a dominant defense by holding the Cardinal without a touchdown.
Lowest moment: The only two losses of the season came in back-to-back weeks, against Michigan and Iowa. Those two opponents went a combined 21-4, so there was no shame in losing to them. But the games weren’t competitive; Northwestern got hammered 38-0 at Michigan and then drilled 40-10 by Iowa, the latter coming on homecoming weekend when the team honored its 1995 Rose Bowl squad.
Key player: Running back Justin Jackson is the key to the offense, a low-scoring bunch led by a redshirt freshman quarterback (Clayton Thorson). Jackson carried the ball 298 times in the regular season, most by a Big Ten tailback, and produced 1,344 yards. No wonder his nickname is “Bread and Butter.”
Motivation level: High. The Wildcats haven’t been bowling since the 2012 season, and they have a chance to become the first 11-win team in school history. A bowl win also could propel them to a top 10 finish.
-- Brian Bennett
Best moment: The Vols’ ability to erase a 21-point deficit at home against Georgia in mid-October totally turned their season around. Tennessee had already blown its own double-digit leads in losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, and wasn’t given much of a chance against the Bulldogs. But thanks to 430 yards of offense and five touchdowns from quarterback Joshua Dobbs, the Vols staged a mighty comeback to win 38-31, leaving the Dawgs shell-shocked. Tennessee outscored Georgia 21-7 in the second half.
Lowest moment: With Florida in the SEC title game, Tennessee’s choke in the Swamp has to be crushing this team. The Vols held a 13-point lead with just over five minutes left before allowing the Gators to orchestrate back-to-back touchdown drives, including the game-winner on a 63-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 1:28 left. Conservative play calling and lax defense ensured a 28-27 Florida win that eventually handed the Gators the Eastern Division.
Key player: Dobbs has really grown as a quarterback, and his team goes by the way he plays. Dobbs threw for 2,125 yards and 15 touchdowns and rushed for 623 yards and nine more scores. Twenty of Dobbs’ 24 total touchdowns came in Tennessee’s eight wins. But Dobbs is most effective in the running game, where he averaged 64.1 yards in conference play (the most of any SEC quarterback).
Motivation level: The Vols were supposed to be better than they were to start the year. Three losses after leading by double-digits were embarrassing, but Tennessee picked things up by winning its last five games. The Vols want some positive momentum going into 2016 and want to prove that they are a team on the rise in the SEC.
-- Edward Aschoff