SQ's Outback Bowl Preview
Despite their long and storied histories, Northwestern and Tennessee have only met on the gridiron once, in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. A Peyton Manning-led Volunteers team secured a convincing 48-28 victory over the Wildcats, who featured their current head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, at linebacker. This time, Fitzgerald and the twelfth-ranked Wildcats (10-2) look to even the score against the resurgent No. 23 Volunteers (8-4).
Vols finish strong - Tennessee got off to a slow start this season, suffering tough losses to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama. However, they were able to rebound and win their last five games of the season. Their late season resurgence is what helped them secure an invite to the Outback Bowl.
Wildcats rebound under Fitzgerald - Head coach Pat Fitzgerald saw success earlier in his tenure, when the Wildcats posted a 10-3 record in 2012. Fitzgerald followed that with 5-7 records in 2013 and 2014, until turning it around again this year. Their successful season was blemished only by back-to-back losses to strong Iowa and Michigan teams.
Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee - Though it rings true for most teams, the success of Tennessee as a team relies heavily on the play of quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs has had up-and-down performances all year long. The main struggle for the junior signal-caller has been his inconsistency with the receiving corps. He was unable to find a go-to target for much of the season. Dobbs has struggled with accuracy, finishing the regular season with a mediocre 59% completion rate.
Despite his shortcomings in the passing game, Dobbs has had an excellent season running the ball. With 623 rushing yards on the season, Dobbs' ability to make plays with his feet may prove to be a crucial factor in this game.
Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern - The sophomore All-American has had a stellar year. Walker has 85.5 tackles on the season, with 19.5 of those tackles happening in the backfield. By comparison, the player with the second-most tackles on the team has 58.
Walker will have a handful in dealing with the three-headed backfield of Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Walker's ability to slow at least one of these players down should prove instrumental to Northwestern's success.
Why Tennessee Wins
Right now, Tennessee looks like a team that refuses to be beaten. After some tough losses to open up their season, the Volunteers have learned how to finish out a game. This goes for the players, but also the coaching staff, who were often criticized for crucial mistakes in their close losses.
Defensively, Tennessee needs big games from linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive end Derek Barnett. Reeves-Maybin leads the team in tackles, and Barnett has had 6 sacks in Tennessee's last 5 games.
Offensively, the three biggest play makers for Tennessee are all in the backfield. If Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara all play like they have been playing the past few games, the Volunteers will certainly be hard to stop.
Why Northwestern Wins
Northwestern has one of the best scoring defenses in the country. They've allowed an average of just 16.4 points per game, making them the seventh-best in the nation. Additionally, they allow just 118 yards per game on the ground. This rush defense will need to step up against Tennessee's backfield talent.
On offense, Northwestern will need to find a way to open up their passing attack. Tennessee's secondary has shown that they often give up big plays through the air. The Wildcats feature a freshman quarterback in Clayton Thorson who has managed just a 51% completion rate. Thorson will need to find a way to connect with his receivers downfield to exploit Tennessee's weaknesses.
These two teams match up very well. They possess weaknesses in the same places. Ultimately, I think Tennessee has more talent on both sides of the ball. Northwestern will have to find a way to shut down Tennessee's running game and force them to throw the ball. If the Wildcats are unable to do that, the Volunteers should be able to come away with a solid victory.
Final Score: Tennessee 37, Northwestern 20