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Why 2015 Northwestern Isn’t 2014 Iowa

Photo via Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics
Photo via Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics

I understand the temptation to completely overlook Northwestern this year. I get it, I really do. I saw first-hand what happened last year in the postseason.

Tennessee got matched up with Iowa on Jan. 2, 2015. There was the expected Twitter trash talk. Iowa fans argued that their team was bigger, stronger, more experienced and more physical. Vol fans went with the athleticism angle – assuming that Tennessee would show off its SEC speed against an overmatched Iowa team.

The results on the field went completely Tennessee’s way. The Vols rolled 45-28 in a game that was all but done by halftime as Tennessee built a 35-7 lead. The scoreboard didn’t even tell that entire story. The Vols ran through, around and past a slow, uninspired Iowa squad all afternoon in Jacksonville in that TaxSlayer Bowl matchup.

It was everything, and perhaps more, than Tennessee fans hoped for. Every stereotype about the SEC vs. the Big 10 was personified on EverBank Field.

Fast-forward a year, and Tennessee finds itself looking at some similarities this postseason. The Vols are matched up with a Big 10 foe in a Florida bowl in a game where the Vols are favored and many fans are looking for a big win. Northwestern, after all, isn’t an explosive team. The Wildcats are last in the Big 10 in yards per play (4.52) and yards per game (332.6).

And Butch Jones’ platitudes about the Wildcats ring fairly hollow after he’s talked up everybody from Kentucky to North Texas to Vanderbilt during the season. It may not carry a lot of weight when Jones says things like this:

“As you all know, [Northwestern is a] 10-2 football team, won their last five games, ranked in the top-15 in every major defensive category that’s out there,” he said. “That’ll make this year, I think we’ve faced five of the top nine defenses in the country. They’re the least penalized team in the Big 10 which tells you about their discipline as a football team and as a football program. They start 11 seniors and they’re the 12th ranked football team in the country so another great challenge.”

As I said at the beginning, I get it. I get the assumption that Tennessee will roll in this one – possibly slicing Northwestern up like it did to Iowa last year. I’m not fully buying it, though. The 2015 Northwestern team isn’t that 2014 Iowa squad. The Wildcats are a lot better.

It starts with their defense. The narrative that Iowa’s defense was strong last year wasn’t entirely true. The Hawkeyes had a mediocre defense last year. They weren’t top five in the Big 10 in rushing defense, total defense or scoring defense. The Wildcats are top five in the Big 10 in all those categories. They are 11th nationally in total defense. and seventh in scoring defense. Iowa was nowhere close in either category last year.

The Wildcats have a top-tier defense. Iowa’s was, at best, decent.

Northwestern also has an offensive identity. It’s not a sexy one, but the Wildcats know what they are. They’re going to run and take care of the football. They’re top five in the league in rushing offense and turnover margin. It’s easy to see what they are. I, frankly, was never quite sure who the Hawkeyes were when studying them last year. And Northwestern comes into this game +5 in turnover margin; Iowa was -6 last year.

Perhaps more than anything, however, Northwestern showed it could beat good football teams. That started with a 16-6 win over eventual Pac 12 champion Stanford. The Wildcats also beat 9-3 Wisconsin, 7-5 Penn State and 7-5 Duke,

Iowa beat zero Power 5-conference teams that finished the 2014 season with a winning record.

The question of motivation must be thrown in as well. I have no reason to believe that Butch Jones can’t get this UT team motivated like he did last year, but there are some different elements in play. A bowl game isn’t the novelty this year that it wast last year for UT. No players on Tennessee’s roster had appeared in a bowl game prior to last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl. They had extra motivation and something to prove.

This year it’s Northwestern going for some history. The Wildcats secured just their fourth double-digit win total in school history in the regular season. No. 11 would be a school record. That’s something to play for.

I’ll make an official prediction in a couple weeks after watching some practice and studying the matchup a little more. And there’s a good chance I go with Tennessee when I do – probably by a score or two. But this 2015 Northwestern team isn’t 2014 Iowa.

And, while a win is very feasible for Tennessee, Vol fans might be wise to expect more of a postseason battle this year.

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