With the arrival of the College Football Playoffs, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is used as a showcase mainly for the New Year’s Six bowls. There’s only two other bowls during those two days, and the Outback Bowl is one of them. Which is fitting, because the Outback Bowl might be the best matchup of all of the non-New Year’s Six bowls this bowl season. In our Outback Bowl Preview, we take a look at why this might be the best of the rest.
Outback Bowl 2015 Preview: Best of the Rest?
Northwestern has lost two games all season, to teams with a total of four losses (Iowa and Michigan). And they had a season opening win against Pac-12 Champion Stanford. The Wildcats have experienced a resurgence and boast one of the strongest on-paper resumes in the nation. An effective, run-oriented offense and a stout, Top-15 nationally ranked defense has the Wildcats back in the Top 25. Pat Fitzgerald has another solid, fundamentally sound team competing at a high level.
Tennessee has four losses — with leads in the fourth quarter of each game — to Oklahoma (OT), Florida (one point), Alabama (five points) and Arkansas (four points). Tennessee is a program that is fighting to get back to national prominence after a decade of being marooned in a sea of mediocrity after the messy firing of Phil Fulmer. Butch Jones has infused energy and talent back into the program and the Vols are trying to win a second straight January Florida Bowl game over a higher-ranked Big Ten opponent.
Outback Bowl, Tampa, Florida
Northwestern (10-2) vs. Tennessee (8-4)
January 1st, 12:00 p.m. ET
The path to victory is pretty clear for both teams.
Northwestern will rely on their defense, allowing only 16 points per game this season, to hold the Volunteers in check. The Wildcats play big up-front, trying to prevent any openings for running backs and little time or space for quarterbacks to operate.
On offense, Northwestern will rely on sophomore running back Justin Jackson. Jackson had over 1300 yards and 4 TDs this season to lead a ball-control, run-first offense that prides itself on execution and controlling the pace of play. Northwestern is a fairly one-dimensional team, with freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson hitting at just over 50% (51.6% completion rate) and throwing for 1,465 yards on the season. It’s an understatement to say that Northwestern isn’t flashy. They are a throwback Big Ten team that wins in the trenches and suffocates opposing teams.
For the Vols, its been the same formula all season. While running back Jalen Hurd might be the most important player on the team (1,158 yards, 11 TDs), Joshua Dobbs is the engine that drives the Vols train. Dobbs is a dual threat quarterback that has suffered from some inconsistency this year, notably in the passing game and ball handling. Iowa and Michigan both throttled Northwestern by establishing an effective rushing attack and then passing over the top of overly aggressive linebackers. Look for Tennessee to do same, giving Northwestern a steady diet of Hurd, Alvin Kamera and Joshua Dobbs on the read-option, power-running Volunteer offense. Once they find success with that, Tennessee will let Dobbs go to the air against a loosened secondary, attacking the middle of the field.
On defense, Tennessee will be looking to continue a strong campaign. While not as good as Northwestern, the Tennessee defensive line does have some size to it and the linebackers have supported well in the running game all season. Tennessee’s rush defense looked decent against two great rushing offenses in Alabama and Arkansas, but Northwestern will be able to find some success against the Vols front seven.
The schemes here favor the Vols. With Northwestern being a largely one-dimensional run team and the Vols having their best success against run-first teams this season, expect Tennessee to play seven in the box consistently to stop the Wildcat rushing attack. Tennessee has no reason to believe Thorson can win this game if it’s on his shoulders. Northwestern’s defense is excellent, but Tennessee has faced three top-15 national defenses in their last six games, averaging over 30 points against those three top-15 defenses. Tennessee has more weapons on offense than any team Northwestern has faced with the exception of Stanford. Tennessee is still a young team, and were this game played earlier in the season, I think Northwestern might have had the benefit.
Northwestern’s best isn’t enough against a talented Tennessee team that is peaking at the right time. Tennessee continues to build program momentum as they look to come out of the decade of darkness for a once proud program.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, Northwestern 17