It’s about time to turn the lights off on an enigmatic era of Tennessee football. It’s been an up-and-down ride for the past few years, and now it’s time to say goodbye to Joshua Dobbs and this senior class, as well as likely Alvin Kamara, Derek Barnett and maybe Josh Malone.
Nobody associated with the program wanted to wrap the season up in Nashville. But that’s where the Vols are, and they at least have a chance to send some of these players off with a positive ending as well as three straight bowl wins and consecutive nine-win seasons. That’ll still fall short of expectations, but it’s something to play for.
Nebraska is in a similar boat after beginning the season with seven straight wins and cracking the top-10 before faltering down the stretch.
I think that makes motivation a very intangible, but important, factor in this game. We’ve already seen about half the underdogs win this bowl season, so UT being favored by 6.5 points means very little.
Matchups, however, are important as well, and it’s going to be interesting to see if this much-maligned Tennessee defense, given a month to rest and regroup, will be able to slow a Nebraska offense that will likely be missing its productive senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong and leading receiver Jordan Westerkamp. The Vols can’t make a bunch of 300-pound defensive tackles appear out of nowhere, but they should have a healthier Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Cam Sutton. They’ve also had time to work some other guys inside to help fill those voids.
Offensively, I think Tennessee should be able to move the ball against a Nebraska defense that really struggled with some of the more athletic teams on its schedule. The Vols can’t afford a South Carolina or fourth quarter against Vandy-like performance on offense, but if they’re playing at the level they did for most of the final few weeks of the season, I expect UT to put up a pretty significant number on the scoreboard.
I like Tennessee on paper, but this one might come down to who is more excited to be on the field. Because I’m not sure if Nebraska is any more motivated than the Vols, I’ll go with the team that I think is more talented overall. Bowl season is crazy, however. I wouldn’t bet on this one.
Pick: Tennessee 37-24
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
Lost in the frustrations of the season-finale loss to Vanderbilt was the incredible run that Dobbs put together late in the season. After the meltdown at South Carolina, Dobbs finished the regular season 69-of-86 (80.2%) for 969 yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception and added 393 yards of rushing with four more touchdowns on the ground. That stretch was punctuated with a 31-of-34 performance against Vandy for 340 yards and a pair of passing touchdowns in the loss. Twice in that four-game stretch he completed 11 straight passes in a single game (Vandy and Tennessee Tech). Simply put, he was playing the best football of his career. There’s always the fear with Dobbs that the accuracy will disappear for a bit, but he’s been relatively sharp in his past two bowl game performances, and I think he’ll go out with some big numbers on Friday against a Nebraska passing defense ranked 10th in the Big 10.
Neither of these teams is coming into this bowl match-up with a lot of momentum. The Vols have lost four of their last seven games including losing 34-31 to Vanderbilt in the final game of the regular season. Nebraska has dropped three of their final five games and lost 40-10 to Iowa in their last game of the regular season.
Both teams had hot starts to their seasons and both were ranked in the top 10 at their peak. Tennessee was 5-0 and in the top 10 and even remained there after a double overtime loss to Texas A&M on the road. Nebraska was 7-0 and in the top 10 before losing in overtime to Wisconsin.
Then the bottom fell out for both teams, and here they sit ready to take each other on in Nashville.
Tennessee will still be missing a handful of injured players coming into this one. But the Vols are finally playing another team that’s about as banged up as them. Nebraska will be out their leading receiver, Jordan Westerkamp, their starting quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and starting senior safety Nate Gerry.
Nebraska still has their starting running back, Terrell Newby, primed and ready to go, and Vol fans know they need to worry about an opponents’ rushing attack considering how the season ended. Newby hasn’t been particularly dynamic, but he’s been consistent and productive, running for 864 yards and seven touchdowns on 181 carries. It does help Tennessee that the Cornhuskers’ second-leading rusher is Armstrong and he’ll be out.
Back-up quarterback Ryker Fyfe has been a career back-up for his four years at Nebraska and hasn’t been effective when he’s played. Fyfe has completed 70 of his 129 passes for 800 yards, eight touchdowns, and six interceptions. Even better news for Vol fans, though, is that Fyfe has just 14 rushing yards and no scores on 23 career carries.
Nebraska’s defense has been solid this season, but the Vols have torn up solid Big 10 defenses in bowl games the last two seasons. Not only that, but when Nebraska has played good teams this year, they’ve come up very small. The Huskers lost 62-3 to Ohio State and 40-10 to Iowa. Their other loss was 23-17 in overtime to Wisconsin. Nebraska’s best wins are against what ended up being a really bad Oregon team and a Northwestern team that ended up 7-6.
The Vols should be able to roll in this one. The only thing that will stand in their way is themselves in terms of motivation or sloppy play on the field.
Tennessee should be able to send out their seniors with a decisive Music City Bowl victory as long as they show up ready to play. If they don’t this one could get ugly. But the Vols should be the ones getting the victory in Nashville.
Pick: Tennessee 42-23
MVP: QB Joshua Dobbs
In his final game as a Vol, Josh Dobbs will go out a winner and put up some impressive numbers. I fully expect that. Dobbs has put together a strong senior season, completing a career-high 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,655 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. All of those are career highs. He’s also run for 713 yards and nine scores. All of those lead the team. Normally the Vols go as Dobbs goes, and I expect him to be one of the main reasons Tennessee wins this game. I expect Dobbs to have four total touchdowns and 300 total yards against Nebraska.