#13 Northwestern v. #23 Tennessee
Raymond James Stadium — Tampa, FL
January 1, 2016 — 12:00 pm Eastern (ESPN2)
Why You Should Watch
There’s no better way to wear off your New Year’s hangover than with a full day of college football, beginning with this non-New Year’s Six game that nevertheless features a matchup of top-25 squads. Relocated from Birmingham in 1986, the Hall of Fame Bowl took on the name of title sponsor Outback Steakhouse a decade later and is celebrating three decades of operation in Tampa this season. The game has been a staple test between the SEC and Big Ten for 21 of those seasons, and its stature is such that this is the fourth game in the past five years where both teams are ranked. There really is no better way to warm up for the penultimate day of football on a reclaimed New Year’s Day than this battle between a couple of hot teams entering the postseason on concurrent five-game winning streaks.
What Each Team Brings to the Table
The Wildcats opened the season with a home upset of Stanford, won the rest of their non-conference schedule, and shut out Minnesota 27-0 to start the season 5-0. Blowout losses to Michigan and Iowa ended the longshot dream of a perfect season, but then Northwestern responded with five more victories to finish the regular season 10-2 — the first time the Wildcats had reached 10 wins in the regular season since their 1995 Big Ten championship season. 1300-yard rusher Justin Jackson was the focal point of an otherwise impotent offense, which averaged fewer than three touchdowns per game. Pat Fitzgerald’s team was bolstered by a top-10 defense that held seven of its 12 opponents to 14 points or fewer. They were also a smart, disciplined team that averaged just five penalties and 40 lost yards per game.
The Volunteers played one of the tougher schedules in the country, showing a propensity for building big leads only to falter at closing out contests; in three of those four games Tennessee held a late lead only to cough up victory. The Vols fielded one of the 20 best rushing attacks in the country, grinding out 223 yards per game thanks to 1100-yard rusher Jalen Hurd, change-of-pace back Alvin Kamara, and dual-threat quarterback Josh Dobbs. The junior quarterback was far less effective passing, throwing just 15 touchdowns. Tennessee’s defense was not quite as dominant as their bowl opponent, but the Vols still ranked in the top 25 in points allowed. Field position could be huge, as Tennesse boasts the best return units in the nation — watch out for Evan Berry, who was first nationally with a 38-yard kick return average and three return touchdowns, and his teammate Cameron Sutton, who also topped the FBS charts with nearly 19 yards per punt return and two return touchdowns.
What is Likely to Happen
Despite being ranked 10 spots higher by the CFP committee and boasting two more wins against a schedule that was frankly not that much easier than the one Tennessee played, Northwestern enters the Outback Bowl as 8.5-point underdogs. The Volunteers have just as one-dimensional an offense, though, that has been thwarted by nearly every elite defense they have confronted this season. Maybe Tennessee comes out on top like they managed against another top defense, Georgia, but that win was only by a touchdown. At the very least, Northwestern will keep this game close… and if they can get another timely touchdown from a defense that has already scored three this season, they might even pull out the win. That’s probably too much to ask, but then again so is a big Volunteer margin of victory
Tennessee 19, Northwestern 16
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