No. 21 Tennessee (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big 10)
Friday, Dec.30, 3:30 pm ET
Nissan Stadium (69,143) • Nashville, Tenn.
Series Record: Nebraska leads 2-0
Setting the table
Let’s call it like it is: Neither of these teams expected or wanted to end their season here. Nebraska had to have stars in its eyes after a 7-0 start and an appearance in the top 10 of the rankings. Same goes for Tennessee, which vaulted up the rankings after a 5-0 start and dramatic wins over rivals Florida and Georgia.
Both teams went downhill from there. Tennessee lost four of its last seven games, including unforgivable losses against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Nebraska didn’t fare much better, dropping three of its last five with huge margins of defeat against Ohio State (59) and Iowa (30). Both teams are limping into this contest with some key players out. Which team can get up for Friday’s matchup? That could be the biggest factor for these teams that followed similar trajectories this season.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
Sometimes lost in Tennessee’s slow finish was the play of quarterback Joshua Dobbs over the final few weeks. He was great in some of the final regular-season games of his career – masterful at times. He played arguably the best game of his career at Vanderbilt in the finale (31-of-34 for 340 yards passing). And if he plays anywhere near that level, Nebraska will have issues. The Huskers checked in 10th in the Big 10 in passing defense, giving up 209.6 ypg through the air. They’ll be without veteran safety Nate Gerry on Friday as well, so Tennessee has every opportunity to move the ball through the air. Edge: Tennessee
When Tennessee runs…
The Vols will face a bit more resistance on the ground, where Nebraska came in sixth in its conference in rushing defense, giving up only 140 yards per game on the ground. The Huskers’ 4-3 defense is fairly stout against the run. But Tennessee, led by Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and John Kelly, will provide an athletic challenge that Nebraska didn’t see on a regular basis this season. If UT’s inconsistent offensive line can hold blocks for long enough, that trio should make some big plays for Tennessee. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
When Nebraska throws…
It’s looking more and more like starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (hamstring) will sit this one out. That means the Huskers will turn over the QB duties to senior and four-year backup Ryker Fyfe, who is certainly no complete stranger to the field, but also doesn’t have near the experience that Armstrong could bring. Fyfe also won’t have leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp, who is out with a knee injury. Tennessee’s defense, which was absolutely shredded by Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur, might be catching a little bit of a break, but the Vols can’t take anything for granted after some of their performances on this side of the ball down the stretch. It’ll be an embarrassment if Fyfe is able to come in and light up UT, but anything seems to be possible with how poor this UT unit has been for much of the season. Edge: Even
When Nebraska runs…
Tennessee’s run defense has been historically bad this season – giving up some of the most yardage in school history on the ground. Three teams have gone over 400 yards on the ground against Tennessee. It’s been a disaster at times. Seemingly anybody and everybody can run the ball on UT, so you can expect the Huskers, who have a serviceable rushing attack (178.2 ypg), to put up big numbers on UT like virtually every other opponent down the stretch did. They don’t have a home-run hitter per se, but Terrell Newby (181 carries, 864 yards) could be in for a big afternoon. Nebraska, however, will miss Armstrong’s presence on the ground. The injured quarterback was the second-leading rusher on the season (512 yards). Edge: Nebraska
On special teams…
The kickers have similar numbers on the season, while Tennessee holds the edge at punter in terms of average and punts downed inside the 20. Injuries have taken a toll on UT’s ability to be explosive in the return game, but the Vols still have the more dangerous options in that area, especially if Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara are given the green light in that area. Edge: Tennessee
Best-case scenario for UT
Tennessee can’t erase what happened in Nashville a month ago, but the Vols can end the season on a positive note and send the seniors and draft-bound juniors, out on a positive note. A convincing win, a record-breaking sack from Derek Barnett and some signs of life on defense would all be great ways to wrap up what’s been a frustrating 2016 campaign for Butch Jones and the Vols.
Worst-case scenario for UT
Even though the Vols are beat up, there will be no excuses in this one. Nebraska, playing without its starting quarterback, its best receiver and maybe its best defender, shouldn’t win this game. Any loss for UT would bring more questions about Butch Jones and the future of this program.
How we think it’ll play out
We think Tennessee is the better team, and while the Vols are missing several key players, that’s largely neutralized by Nebraska’s injuries and absences. It comes down to motivation and UT’s defense. If the Vols play as poorly as they have in recent weeks on that side of the ball, it could certainly get interesting. But Tennessee’s athletic edge, like is has in the past two bowl games, should be the difference.