The Vols found out on Sunday afternoon that they will be taking on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Music City Bowl on December 30th. It will be the third consecutive bowl game in which Tennessee will be taking on a Big Ten opponent, and it will be the first time in nearly two decades that these two former powerhouses have played each other. It also marks the second time in six years the Vols will be playing in the Music City Bowl and the third time in less than a year and a half Tennessee will be playing in Nashville.
There are already plenty of story-lines to look into early on in the scouting process for this one. But here are five early observations for the Vols’ match-up with Nebraska in the Music City Bowl.
The last time these two teams played was almost two decades ago, and these two programs were on very different playing fields then. The Vols and Cornhuskers faced off in the 1998 Orange Bowl and 2000 Fiesta Bowl with Nebraska winning both (42-17 in the Orange Bowl and 31-21 in the Fiesta Bowl). These two teams were some of the most dominant teams of the 1990s, wining a combined 207 games during that decade. The Vols won the 1998 National Championship and Nebraska won the national title in 1994, 1995, and 1997.
Now, however, the two programs have fallen off from their championship ways. Yet they remain on similar footing.
Two Teams, Two Similar Paths
Nebraska may have more success in the recent past than Tennessee, winning at least nine games in eight of the last nine seasons. But these two programs had a very similar 2016.
Both the Vols and Cornhuskers started out strong this season. Tennessee jumped out to a 5-0 start and a top 10 ranking while Nebraska was 7-0 and also in the top 10 at their peak this season. The Vols stumbled down the stretch, however, losing four of their last seven games. And the Cornhuskers did nearly the same, losing three of their last five games.
Burned by Good Teams
The Vols lost to great teams and mediocre teams both this season, only getting blown out once by the consensus No. 1 team in the country back in October. Nebraska, meanwhile, has only lost to “good” teams. And they’ve lost pretty badly in most of them.
Nebraska’s first loss came in overtime to then-No. 11 Wisconsin, 23-17. But then the wheels fell off the next two times the Cornhuskers lost. Then-No. 6 Ohio State blasted Nebraska 62-3 the following week and the Cornhuskers lost 40-10 to an 8-4 Iowa team to end the season. In fact, only two of Nebraska’s nine wins have come against teams with records better than .500. They have three wins over teams that finished with 6-6 records as well.
Another Dual-Threat QB
If there’s one thing Vol fans know that gives Tennessee trouble historically, it’s dual-threat quarterbacks. And that was apparent again this season in some of the Vols’ worst defensive performances.
Now they get to face yet another dual-threat quarterback in the Music City Bowl.
Much like Josh Dobbs for the Vols, Tommy Armstrong Jr. has been the main source of offense for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s senior quarterback has thrown for 2,180 yards and run for another 512 yards on 113 carries. He has 14 passing touchdowns and eight rushing scores. Armstrong isn’t the most accurate passer (51.4 completion percentage and eight interceptions), but he’s very dangerous on the ground. And the Vols’ run defense has been downright dreadful down the stretch.
Nebraska Protection Plan
If Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett is going to unseat Reggie White for the programs all-time sack mark in a career, he’s going to have to do it against one of the best offensive lines in the country.
Nebraska has only allowed 11 sacks all season. That total is the lowest allowed in the Big Ten and is tied for the sixth-fewest given up all year in the entire country. It also helps that Armstrong is mobile and can evade defenders with ease.