Bowl season is a tricky time. I can just look at my RTI/Sugarlands bowl pick’em group as a reminder that even some of the games I was the most confident in picking haven’t gone my way.
So with that preface that it’s tough to make many guarantees once the regular season ends and this archaic postseason process begins, I make my predictions for UT’s second consecutive January bowl game in the Sunshine State against a Big 10 team.
To put it simply, I think Tennessee is the superior football team in all three phases. Northwestern’s defense is solid, but Tennessee has seen defenses of equal or more capability and has moved the football well against them. I see no reason Tennessee can’t do the same on Friday. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. I can see this game going more the way of the Missouri game for UT this year, meaning the Vols might be in control for much of the game, but touchdowns could be hard to come from and the defense will need to play a solid 60 minutes and Aaron Medley will need to capitalize on his opportunities as well.
Offensively, I have a lot of respect for Northwestern running back Justin Jackson, but I just don’t see an explosive overall offense that is capable of really harming UT, unless there are some self-inflicted wounds from the Vols. And avoiding those will be key for Tennessee: Northwestern will look to win this game by playing the cleaner game and shortening it, getting it to the fourth quarter and getting the win late.
Tennessee has to do what it did against Iowa last year – take it to its opponent early and often, build a lead and play at its tempo. I think the Vols can do that.
I have to acknowledge the possibility that maybe a Northwestern team playing for a school win record, is the more motivated squad and proves why it beat Stanford and is a top 15 team. At the end of the day, however, I agree with Vegas, ESPN’s FPI and others that are going with the Vols.
There are just too many ways that Tennessee offensively can hurt Northwestern. I think that will be the difference. The Wildcats are a good, well-coached football team and could certainly find a way to win the game, but I’m going with the Vols to get 2016 rolling with a fairly comfortable win.
Pick: Tennessee 31-21
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
Northwestern’s pass defense has been just ok this year, and I see a healthy, rested Joshua Dobbs having the opportunity to burn Northwestern in spurts through the air, but being a real threat to pull off some big plays on the ground. Northwestern simply doesn’t see dynamic athletes at the quarterback position like Dobbs on a regular basis. UT will scheme up some plays to get him moving and he’ll hit just enough plays through the air to be effective that way as well.
I feel nervous about this game. Not because I think the two teams are evenly matched and either one could win; no, I’m nervous because I feel too confident in this game. I feel too confident in a Vol victory.
And if the 2015 season has taught me anything, it’s that I need to be wary of being confident in the Vols.
I felt confident the Vols would give Oklahoma a game and even more confident they would win once they took a 17-point lead in the first half. Confidence oozed out of me when the Vols had a two-score lead in the fourth quarter against Florida in The Swamp. I even felt confident the Vols could upset Alabama and felt even more justified when they had a lead over the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter.
But my confidence in all those situations didn’t pay off. Not just one or a couple, but all of those scenarios went the opposite direction I expected. And a lot of Vol fans too.
So when I say I feel confident Tennessee can beat Northwestern by two or more touchdowns, it scares me. I truly think they can and will, but just believing that makes me want to hedge my bets and go the opposite direction based on this season.
But when I look at the stats, they only make me more and more confident in the Vols.
Northwestern has a good defense, as it ranks in the top 20 in the country in nearly every major statistical category. But that defense has come against a schedule that ranks 50th in Strength of Schedule, meaning the stats are probably a little skewed. And in Northwestern’s losses to Michigan and Iowa, they allowed over 30 points, were outscored 78-10 overall, and were out-gained on the ground 495-89.
And speaking of that Wildcat offense, it doesn’t scare me one bit. It’s the polar opposite of the team’s defense, as Northwestern’s offense ranks in the bottom 100 in the country in every category but rushing offense. The one thing the Wildcats did well this year was run the ball, but as mentioned above, they couldn’t do it against the best teams on their schedule.
Northwestern’s freshman quarterback, Clayton Thorson, is athletic and is a weapon on the ground. But he’s completed just 51.2 percent of his passes and has only 7 touchdowns along with 7 interceptions. If the Wildcats fall behind early, I don’t have confidence he can lead them back.
As long as the Vols don’t turn the ball over and give Northwestern more opportunities than they would normally have, I think the Vols should handle the Wildcats. This will be a game where Tennessee can jump out to a lead and sit on it without worrying about the opponent coming back. Just like they did against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.
Pick: Tennessee 34-17
MVP: RB Jalen Hurd
While Josh Dobbs will likely have opportunities to make plays both in the air and on the ground in this one, the Vols MO this year has been to beat teams on the ground. And I think that’s exactly what they’ll do in this one as well, which likely means a healthy dose of Jalen Hurd. And if there’s one thing we’ve seen this year, it’s that when Hurd has a good, consistent game, the Vols usually win. I think Hurd goes for over 100 on the ground and adds another 30 or 40 on receptions while totaling a couple touchdowns.