Derek Barnett and the Volunteers look to finish the season on a winning note against the Cornhuskers in Nashville
This postseason between college football giants of yesteryear promises to be exciting, if recent results are any indication. Big Ten representative Nebraska comes into Friday's contest with an incredible 12 games in the last two seasons decided by a single possession.
Mike Riley's Cornhuskers have lived on either side of Heartbreak Street, though 2016 stayed much more on beat than the previous campaign. A win in the Music City Bowl puts Nebraska at the all-important 10-win mark, a milestone last reached in 2012. At 10-3, this Husker squad would have the program's best winning percentage since 2003.
Tennessee was almost as well-versed in dramatic finales as Nebraska, playing four one-possession games in 2016. However, heartache came a bit differently for Butch Jones' Volunteers.
Confounding losses to opponents like South Carolina and Vanderbilt dampened a season that kicked off with talk of a potential College Football Playoff appearance. The Vols now strive for nine wins — not the lofty benchmark set before the season, but good enough to match last season's finish. The 2015 campaign was Tennessee's best since '07.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Nebraska vs. Tennessee (Nashville, Tenn.)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Tennessee -6
Three Things to Watch
1. A Run on Corn
Tennessee's rushing defense in 2016 has been the pits, to put it bluntly. The Volunteers come into the Music City Bowl ranked No. 111 in FBS, surrendering more than 230 rushing yards per game and 5.15 yards per carry. Nebraska's option-offense teams of the 1990s may well have run the distance between Knoxville and Nashville over the course of one game against this Tennessee defense.
Mike Riley came to Lincoln employing an offensive philosophy more predicated on the pass, but don't be surprised to see Nebraska ground-and-pound Friday.
In addition to the Vols' woes stopping the run, Nebraska's passing offense has been shaky. Husker quarterbacks are completing fewer than 51 percent of attempts, and have not thrown for more than eight yards per attempt since mid-October.
With primary quarterback Tommy Armstrong suffering a scary-looking injury late in the regular season, would be well served sparing him from Tennessee's pass rush – namely All-American defensive end, Derek Barnett. Armstrong's a key to the Nebraska rushing attack, ranking second in total yards, but integrating more of Devine Ozigbo (also injured late in the season) and Tre Bryant should be critical to the Huskers' offensive forecast. Armstrong's hamstring injury is expected to keep the senior out of the lineup on Friday afternoon. With Armstrong sidelined, senior Ryker Fyfe is expected to get the nod under center.
2. Volunteering to Pass
A multifaceted rushing attack powers the Tennessee offense, with quarterback Joshua Dobbs playing a crucial role.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker has plenty of experience with mobile quarterbacks, working extensively in the Pac-12 before his move to Lincoln in 2015. Banker is likely to have a spy on Dobbs, while the Husker front seven commits to a heavy, run-stopping look that invites Dobbs to pass.
The Vol quarterback's accuracy then becomes essential, as Nebraska brings one of the nation's top turnover-generating secondaries into Nashville.
The Huskers have 16 interceptions on the campaign, tied for 13th-most in the nation. Dobbs hasn't been wholly turnover-prone, but during a three-game losing skid in October, which effectively doomed Tennessee's SEC East title hopes, he threw five picks against just two touchdowns.
Nate Gerry's suspension at safety should open the field somewhat for Dobbs, but the Vols can't get too greedy through the air. His outstanding individual passing effort against Vanderbilt proved that Tennessee's best served still as a run-first offense.
3. Low vs. High
The common bond through eight of Nebraska's nine wins: Opponents scored 22 points or less. The outlier came against defensively inept Oregon, which scored 32 points in a 35-32 Husker win.
Meanwhile, teams beating Nebraska scored between 23 and 62 points.
Coincidentally, Tennessee's been almost unbeatable when it scores 30-plus. The lone exceptions came in an overtime loss at Texas A&M (not surprising) and the season finale vs. Vanderbilt (confounding). Otherwise, the Vols won six games scoring more than 30, and managed 28 in a seventh victory.
A high-scoring contest favors Tennessee, while the Cornhuskers will aim to grind down the tempo.
The bitter disappointment that has been Tennessee's season doesn't feel conducive to a triumphant cap. Bowl games often come down to motivation, and with hopes of national, conference and even division titles dashed long ago, the question for the Vols boils down to just how motivated they'll be to win the Music City Bowl.
Tennessee has the talent to beat most teams around college football – Nebraska's no exception. The Cornhuskers are physically banged up at several key areas, giving the Vols an even more profound edge based solely on matchups.
However, the sour note on which the regular season ended is likely to carry over into the bowl game.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Tennessee 21