Some Vegas insiders have the Volunteers installed as 8 1/2-point favorites; others are willing to stretch that figure a half-point higher.
Either way, it’s fair to wonder if the seismic gap between an 8-4 club (as the favorite) and a 10-2 squad doesn’t entail an SEC or Big Ten bias … but more of a national condemnation of Northwestern?
Yes, the Wildcats stealthily rank seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in total defense and 12th in red-zone defense. However, their two seasonal losses to Michigan and Iowa (on consecutive Saturdays) had a composite score of 78-10.
Plus, for this century, Northwestern has a woeful 1-7 record in bowl action, with only two defeats featuring a spread of six or fewer points.
Here’s another reason to believe the Vegas number-crunchers: Of Tennessee’s six regular-season opponents currently listed in the top 30 for scoring defense — Alabama, Missouri, Florida, UGA, Oklahoma, Vanderbilt — the Volunteers impressively averaged 29.2 points per game.
Now, compare that 29.2 to Northwestern reaching the 30-point barrier only twice this season … and perhaps Tennessee should be favored by double digits?
Of course, an ardent Wildcats supporter would cite their school’s crucial victories over Stanford, Duke, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin as tangible proof of a bowl celebration.
They might also ask, with a hint of derision, What has Tennessee done of great consequence this season — aside from squandering late leads to Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama … and rallying to beat an under-whelming UGA team?
The golden rule: When in doubt with unfamiliar foes, always follow the team that knows how to score.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.