Tennessee answered all the necessary questions against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on Friday.
Would the Vols be ready for another Florida bowl with nothing but a trophy at stake? Would they be as physical as their Big Ten opponent? Would they show some flash?
The answers were overwhelmingly affirmative. In fact, it’s hard to find any holes in Tennessee’s 45-6 win over Northwestern. Here are the deserved grades:
Northwestern had no answer for Tennessee’s rushing attack. The Vols racked up 226 yards on the ground, averaging 4.3 yards per attempt in punishing fashion. Jalen Hurd was named the game’s most valuable player after gaining 130 yards on 24 carries. Fellow back Alvin Kamara gained 53 yards on 11 carries. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was completely in charge. Despite some pressure — Tennessee’s offensive line allowed three sacks — the junior completed 14-of-25 passes for 166 yards. Tight end Alex Ellis saved his best game for his last. The senior caught three passes for 74 yards, making it a fantastic send off for the former walk-on.
The Vols were both stout and opportunistic against the Wildcats. Tennessee only allowed 261 yards while intercepting four passes and registering four sacks. Fans had better enjoy Derek Barnett next season. The sophomore defensive end had eight tackles, a sack and forced a fumble. He’ll have a tough decision to make after the 2016 season if he stays healthy, as the NFL will certainly come calling. Freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., is a star in the making. He had six tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a sack. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was active as usual with six tackles and a sack.
Special Teams B
Northwestern knew better than to try Tennessee’s return game when given the chance. That left most of the special teams’ duties to punter Trevor Daniel and kicker Aaron Medley. Daniel closed out his breakout season with four punts that averaged 47.8 yards, including a 57 yarder that pinned Northwestern deep. Aaron Medley converted 1-of-2 field goals. His miss, a 49-yard attempt, hit the upright.
Fans have long called for Dobbs to begin more plays under center. That finally happened. Is that a sign of things to come? If so, it seems like a good fit. Hurd is a power back that looks tough to stop with a head full of steam and Dobbs is a surprisingly impressive ball handler on play action. The extra time also allowed Tennessee to surprise Northwestern with some new tight end plays via Alex Ellis.
The Vols continued to fight off complacency as they garner nationwide respect. Tennessee looked physical and fast against Northwestern. That’s something to be noted for the rest of the SEC East. The Outback Bowl only raises expectations for 2016. The Vols won’t just be considered contenders to win the division. They’ll be the favorite.