Forget the bowling, the hockey and the roller coasters that have populated the past week of Outback Bowl preparation. There is actually a game to be played.
Northwestern awaits Tennessee in the Outback Bowl on Friday at noon ET. Sure, there’s reason to think the Wildcats will be a pushover like Iowa was last year in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Both are Big Ten teams. Both like to run the football. Both pride themselves on being physical. Yet there’s one potential difference between the two.
Motivation is always key in bowl games; it certainly was last year. Iowa was hoping to play for a championship before the 2014 season. The TaxSlayer Bowl was a disappointment. As for the Vols, they were in a bowl game for the first time since 2009. They wanted to make a statement … and did.
This year’s Tennessee team, along with Northwestern, could potentially come in with very different mindsets. Northwestern should celebrate its Outback Bowl selection and take full advantage of this trip. It has an opportunity to beat an SEC foe and one of the up-and-coming programs in the nation. As for the Vols, they have a chance to just win another Florida bowl game. How exciting is that after missing out on a chance for an SEC Championship? Everyone will know on Friday.
Tennessee Volunteers (8-4, 5-3 SEC) vs. Northwestern (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten)
Kickoff: Noon ET
Weather: 80 degrees, sunshine and clouds (weather.com)
Line: Tennessee -8
By the numbers
4 – The number of games Tennessee has won in Tampa, Fla., all-time. The Vols have only lost one contest in the Cigar City.
10 – The number of wins and losses Tennessee has against Big Ten opponents. The Vols are 10-10 against current members of the conference all-time.
XXV – The Super Bowl in which Butch Jones was a ballboy. Jones retrieved Buffalo Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood’s “wide right” field goal at Super Bowl XXV. Jones began his career as an intern for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1987-89.
2,682 – The amount of rushing yards the Vols have this season. That’s the most since 1989 when the Vols had 2,701. Tennessee figures to top that mark on Friday.
Storylines to watch
Who controls the ground game?
Both teams run the ball effectively. The Vols rank No. 21 in the nation with 224 yards rushing per game. Northwestern in No. 36 in the country with 193 yards per game. The Wildcats are better suited to stop the run. Northwestern ranks No. 13 in the country with 118 rushing yards allowed per game. Tennessee’s run defense hasn’t been nearly as good. The Vols rank No. 49 nationally having allowed 153 yards rushing per game.
Is Northwestern fast enough?
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made sure to point out this week that the Big Ten has gotten much faster in recent history. That’s clearly true with elite programs, like Ohio State, who won the national title last season. However, has that speed filtered down to teams like Northwestern? Friday’s Outback Bowl should be a good gauge as to how much faster the Big Ten has become.
How fresh is Joshua Dobbs?
Dobbs wasn’t as worn down this season as he was last year, but he still takes more than his share of abuse. The junior quarterback was fantastic in the TaxSlayer Bowl last season after a long rest when he accounted for three scores. If Dobbs plays anything like he did last year against Iowa, it will be a long day for the Wildcats.
Can the Vols be special one more time?
If there’s one area that a team has a clear advantage, it’s special teams. The Vols are explosive in the return game with kick returner Evan Berry and punt returner Cameron Sutton. Keep in mind that special teams coach Mark Elder is leaving for Eastern Kentucky after the bowl game. Berry will be asked to play safety in 2016 and Sutton could be gone to the NFL. This is a chance for Tennessee’s special teams to close the season off strong and start the New Year with a bang.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Northwestern 20
Tennessee is the favorite but an 8-point spread seems like a bit much. Expect Northwestern to play with good effort, but the Vols just have more talent. Moreover, Tennessee has risen to the challenge repeatedly this season. The Vols responded to heartbreaking losses to close out the season strong. There’s no reason to think they haven’t taken a businesslike approach to the Outback Bowl as well.