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Outback Bowl Preview: No. 23 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Northwestern

Joshua Dobbs-1-3No. 23 Tennessee (8-4) vs. No. 13 Northwestern (10-2)

Friday, noon ET

Raymond James Stadium (65,890) • Tampa Bay, Florida


Series Record: Tennessee leads 1-0

 Setting the table

For the second year in a row, Tennessee finds itself playing football in January after a three-year bowl drought prior to 2014. Tennessee and Northwestern are matching up in the Outback Bowl in Tampa in a game that features two teams on five-game winning streaks. Despite the inferior record, Tennessee comes in as the 8.5-point favorite, according to Vegas, and is looking to utilize its perceived advantage in athleticism and speed to exploit the Wildcats. Northwestern, meanwhile, features a stingy defense, a high-level rushing attack and plays some of the most disciplined football in the nation. Tennessee fans are hoping for a repeat of that blowout of Iowa in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl, while Northwestern is going for its highest win total in school history.

 Who has the edge

When Tennessee throws…

The Vols are hopeful that a month off gets their banged-up receiving unit some rest and recovery and helps them find some rhythm with quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who has been an inconsistent passer in 2015. The Wildcats have been decent in passing defense – coming in seventh in the Big 10 in passing yardage per game given up (192.7/game). The Vols have been equally mediocre throwing, averaging just under 200 yards per game through the air. NU will also be without corner Nick VanHoose, who will miss this contest with a finger injury. It’s tough to put a ton of confidence in this UT passing attack, but it should have at least the potential to make some plays if Dobbs can get the ball in playmakers’ hands. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee 

When Tennessee runs…

This is strength vs. strength here. Tennessee was one of the best teams in the SEC running the football in 2015. Northwestern is 13th nationally in run defense, giving up an average of just 118 yards per game on the ground. The Vols must respect that and know it won’t come easy. But they’ve, ultimately, been able to run against pretty much anybody this year and facing a top-tier run defense is no new challenge. The Vols managed to find at least some room on the ground against Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Georgia – all top-50 national rushing defenses. So Northwestern will be a test, but not one they haven’t passed before. The Wildcats haven’t seen an attack with the quantity and quality of options that UT has. It won’t all be easy, but UT should move the ball on the ground, even against this stingy bunch. Edge: Tennessee 

When Northwestern throws…

The Wildcats simply can’t be viewed as a huge threat through the air. They are dead last in the Big 10 in multiple passing categories, including yardage and yards per attempt. Quarterback Clayton Thorson did some good things as a freshman, but didn’t throw for more than 177 yards in a game against Power-5 conference competition and has an even TD/INT ratio. Tennessee’s secondary, which has been shaky at times, should have the clear advantage in this one. The key will be for them not to get sucked up in play action and to remain disciplined in pass coverage while helping out against Northwestern’s impressive run game as well.  Edge: Tennessee 

When Northwestern runs…

This will be the big challenge for Tennessee. The Wildcats are fourth in the Big 10 with 193 yards per game on the ground. Running back Justin Jackson spearheads that attack, and he’s been really strong down the stretch – averaging 153 yards per game himself over the last four games with three touchdowns in the stretch. With just one touchdown in his first eight weeks of the season, he really struggled to find the end zone, but that seems to be solved recently. He’s not a big guy, but he can cause issues if UT doesn’t leverage the football well. It remains to be seen if he can put up a 150+ yard- type performance against the Vols, but he’s good enough that UT needs to make him its top priority on Friday defensively. Edge: Northwestern 

On special teams…

Northwestern has been really good on special teams this year. Tennessee has been a little bit better. Though the Wildcats have excelled, especially in punt coverage and kickoff returns, Tennessee’s been strong in virtually every special teams category – especially in the return game. The Vols have the significantly better punter, and though the Wildcats have had some highlights of their own in the return game, the combination of Evan Berry at kickoff return and Cam Sutton at punt returner takes a backseat to almost nobody in the nation.  Edge: Tennessee

 What Northwestern  is thinking

There’s a reason we’re the 13th ranked team in the country. We beat Stanford, Duke, Penn State and Wisconsin. Tennessee is good, but we’ve beaten good teams this year. And we’re playing for school history – motivation will be on our side. There’s a ton of SEC bias out there and we’re out to prove that the conference is overhyped. In fact, we’ve won three straight against the conference, so we’re feeling pretty confident. We’ll play our game, dictate the tempo, create turnovers and limit mistakes. Tennessee may have a few athletic edges, but we’re the better team. And if it comes down to the end, Tennessee has shown it will choke. We’ll like our chances in that situation.

 What Tennessee is thinking

We know we’re the better team: we’re bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic. Iowa talked about playing a physical game against us last year and taking it to us. We embarrassed them. If all goes well, we can do that again this year. It might not be as easy, but we’re going to make plays in space and we don’t think Northwestern is explosive enough on offense to be a huge threat. We’ll key on Jackson and the run game and make the young quarterback beat us. We’ll win this one comfortably to get off to a great start in what could be a huge 2016 year for us.

 What RTI is thinking

Bowl season can be tricky. It’s hard to make many guarantees. Maybe the novelty of playing in a January, Florida bowl has worn off for the Vols after they blasted Iowa last year, and perhaps Northwestern, looking for school history, will be the more motivated team. But while we certainly think this Northwestern team is better than what UT saw last year against the Hawkeyes, we also think the end result will ultimately be the same. It won’t be a blowout, in our estimation, but UT will hit some field goals, limit Northwestern to 20 or less points and then hit a few big strikes offensively – likely on the ground – to get some separation. This one certainly could go either way, but we like UT’s chances in a game that very well could end up around where Vegas says it will.

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