Prior to the start of the 2015 season, It was not a forgone conclusion that the Northwestern Wildcats (10-2 overall, 6-2 Big 10) would even make a bowl game, much less a New Year’s Day bowl game. Those sentiments quickly changed following a surprise victory over highly touted Stanford in the Wildcats' season opener. A win that would ultimately catapult Northwestern to one of its best seasons in school history and a No. 13 national ranking. A victory over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl would culminate in six straight wins for the Wildcats, and the first ever 11-win season in school history.
A strong finish in 2014 complemented by a dominant performance against Iowa in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl had expectations soaring for the Tennessee Volunteers (8-4 overall, 5-3 SEC) heading into their 2015 campaign. While last-minute letdowns against Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama would ultimately derail Tennessee’s dream season, there is no question that the Volunteers made strides in their quest to return to national prominence. An amazing come-from-behind victory against Georgia provided Butch Jones' Vols with a much-needed signature win, and despite those heart-breaking losses, a young Tennessee team proved that it can hang with the best of the best. A win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl would give No. 23 Tennessee its sixth consecutive win and plenty of momentum heading into 2016.
Tennessee and Northwestern have met just one time prior to the 2016 Outback Bowl. A dominant performance by Peyton Manning helped lead the Volunteers to a 48-28 victory over the Wildcats in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald served as a star linebacker for the Wildcats on that Citrus Bowl team.
Outback Bowl: Northwestern vs. Tennessee (Tampa, FL)
Kickoff: 12:00 p.m. ET (Friday)
Spread: Tennessee -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Potent Tennessee Rushing Attack vs. Stout Northwestern Run Defense
The Tennessee Volunteers have been a force to be reckoned with running the football this season. The Vols’ 224 rushing yards per game ranks 20th in the nation and second in the SEC. Tennessee’s 27 rushing touchdowns are the third most in the SEC. The Volunteers' three-pronged ground attack is led by running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs is an instinctual and elusive runner that provides the Vols’ run game with an element of surprise that must be accounted for.
Standing in Tennessee’s way will be a hard-nosed Northwestern run defense that ranks 13th nationally, giving up just 118 yards per game and 11 rushing touchdowns on the season. All-American linebacker Anthony Walker is a force in the middle for a Northwestern defense that limited Heisman trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey to just 66 rushing yards.
Despite strong performances throughout the season, Northwestern has shown that it can be vulnerable against a strong run game. The Wildcats allowed 201 rushing yards against Michigan and gave up a whopping 294 on the ground to Iowa. Consequently, Northwestern lost both of those contests badly. The Wildcats could once again have their hands full against a potent Tennessee ground game that has proven that it can effectively run the football against any defense thrown its way.
2. Northwestern Offense
Northwestern's offense can best be described as a run-heavy attack that relies on field position provided by great defense and solid special teams. Leading the way for the Wildcats' offense is speedy running back Justin Jackson. His 1,344 rushing yards were good enough for second most in the Big Ten this season. A passing attack led by freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson has been underwhelming to say the least. That said, Thorson rarely makes mistakes and is capable of beating opposing defenses with his feet.
Tennessee’s defense will likely stack the box in an attempt to slow down the Wildcats’ run game, forcing Thorson to beat them with his arm. A tried and true strategy for the most part, but the Volunteers have been inconsistent stopping the run throughout the season, and Jackson is more than capable of making them pay. A Wildcats’ offense that ranks 114th in the nation isn’t going to wow anyone, but the Volunteers would be smart not to underestimate them.
3. Passing Game
Both of these teams have struggled throwing the football all season. Northwestern ranks a horrid 119th in the country in passing offense with just 139 passing yards per game to go along with eight touchdown passes. Tennessee has fared better in the passing game, but that isn’t saying much. The Volunteers rank 92nd nationally, throwing for 199 yards per game on average, and adding 17 touchdowns through the air.
Dobbs is a capable threat using his arm, but he is much more dangerous running the football. Dobbs has struggled with downfield accuracy, and a beat-up Volunteer receiving corps has limited his options. He will have his hands full trying to throw the football against a stingy Wildcat’s pass defense.
Thorson has shown flashes at times using his arm, but he is basically a game manager that relies primarily on the running game. Thorson throws only when it is absolutely required and rarely gambles by taking big shots downfield. If Tennessee has its way stopping the Wildcats' ground game, the freshman signal-caller will be forced to go to the air, which bodes poorly for the Northwestern offense.
A dominant defense complemented by a solid ground game on offense has provided the recipe for success and a 10-win season for the Wildcats. The question is, how will that formula play out against the Volunteers?
In spite of Tennessee’s lackluster passing game, the Volunteers have shown that they can move the football against some of the best defenses in the nation. Would it be shocking to see the Vols dominate a stout Northwestern defense? Absolutely, but it is not completely out of the question given the Wildcats' struggles against less potent run games from Michigan and Iowa. Joshua Dobbs' ability to scramble and effectively run the football will likely be the x-factor for the Volunteers.
A one-dimensional Northwestern offense will likely find it much harder to find success against the Tennessee defense. Northwestern running back, Justin Jackson, could prove to be a handful for an inconsistent Tennessee run defense, but he cannot do it alone. While the Northwestern defense is good enough to keep it somewhat competitive, it won’t be enough to keep the Volunteers out of the win column.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Northwestern 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.