Tennessee is finally playing on New Year’s Day again, ending an eight-year drought. However, the No. 23 Volunteers (8-4) will have a considerable challenge on their hands when they face No. 13 Northwestern (10-2) in the Outback Bowl.
Both teams enter bowl season on five-game winning streaks, and both teams will lean heavily on dynamic running backs. Tennessee’s success against a stout Northwestern defense could be the deciding factor in the game.
Let’s take a look at some key early points in the matchup between the Vols and Wildcats:
Best individual matchup: It will be a treat watching Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd and Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker go after each other all game. He doesn’t get as many headlines as Alabama’s Derrick Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, but Hurd (1,158 yards, 11 TDs) is one of the SEC’s toughest runners. Meanwhile, Walker (113 tackles, 19.5 TFLs) was in on at least one tackle for loss in every game but one this season and notched double-digit tackles six times.
Key question for Tennessee: What should we make of the five-game winning streak that allowed Tennessee to reach eight wins in a season for the first time since 2007? The teams Tennessee defeated in that stretch -- Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt -- were a combined 18-42. Although Northwestern absorbed decisive beatings against Iowa and Michigan, this is also a team that beat Pac-12 champ Stanford and could be on the verge of the first 11-win season in school history. A win in Tampa would probably rank as the best victory of the season for the Vols.
Storyline to watch: Northwestern has been clutch in one-score games this season -- a sticking point at times for the Vols. The Wildcats went 5-0 in games settled by one score, including a 30-28 win at Nebraska and a 13-7 victory at Wisconsin. Meanwhile, three of Tennessee’s losses -- to Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama -- are most notable because of the way the Vols allowed fourth-quarter leads to slip away. Don’t doubt that the TV announcers will remind us of this trend if it’s a close game heading into the final period.
Tennessee will win if… Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs is not the world’s most efficient passer, but Tennessee’s offense is most dangerous when he stretches the field with his ability to run AND throw. In the six games where Dobbs rushed for at least 50 yards, the Vols went 5-1. If he is able to find running room against a Northwestern team that ranks 11th in total defense (310.5 ypg), Tennessee has to like its chances.
Tennessee will lose if… A common thread in Northwestern’s two losses was its complete inability to move the ball on the ground. The Wildcats led the Big Ten with 248.8 rushing ypg through its first five games, but Michigan held them to 38 yards on 25 attempts in a 38-0 rout on Oct. 10. The result was nearly as bad a week later against Iowa, with Northwestern totaling just 51 yards on the ground in 26 attempts. If Justin Jackson (298 carries, 1,344 yards) gets rolling against the Vols’ fairly average run defense -- Tennessee is 49 nationally at 153.3 ypg -- that will be a big problem for Tennessee.