Selection Sunday was very kind to the Northwestern Wildcats this year. Northwestern was rewarded with a bid to the Outback Bowl on New Years Day against Tennessee.
Northwestern was a pretty consistent team on the AP top 25 list, only missing for two weeks after losing to Michigan and Iowa back-to-back. Their consistent dominance on defense and Justin Jackson’s continued growth gave the Wildcats a season that will be marked as one of the best in program history.
Prior to this season Northwestern has been known mostly for their academics nation wide but this New Years Day Pat Fitzgerald will look to change that. This bowl selection comes to no surprise to Fitzgerald who has been asking the committee to look at the film all season before making any snap judgments.
While my partner Eric Burgher and I have talked extensively about this Northwestern football team, it is time to take a look at their opponents, Tennessee.
The Volunteers finished the season with an 8-4 record and a five-game win streak. The 2015 Tennessee football team had a similar story to Northwestern when it comes to games against tough opponents. In their games against teams in the college football playoff, Alabama and Oklahoma, the Volts lost by a total of 12 points. Northwestern on the other hand lost by a total of 68 points to Michigan and Iowa. Tennessee’s other two losses came against Florida, who played Alabama in the SEC title game and will be playing Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, and Arkansas, who finished 7-5 and will be playing in the Liberty Bowl.
On the field these two teams are very similar. They both have a dual-threat quarterback, talented running backs and a strong defense. Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs has made plays with his arm and feet, just like Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. Both teams rely heavily on sophomore running backs. Northwestern’s Justin Jackson was named to the second team All-Big Ten after his 1,344 rushing yard season. Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd rushed for 1,100 yards and scored 11 touchdown’s.
Defensively both team’s are stout and have playmakers in similar positions. Northwestern was lead by senior captain and second-team All Big Ten defensive end Dean Lowry with consensus first-team All Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker. Northwestern also had a talented secondary who created turnovers and limited big plays all season.
Tennessee’s defense was also lead by their defensive lineup Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The two pressured quarterbacks all season long and finished the year with 14 sacks. Just like Northwestern, Tennessee had a tough secondary adept to causing turnovers.
While these two teams seem to be mirror images of each other Tennessee is a little more prone to giving up a big play. In a game that is going to have so much meaning behind every single movement, that one play could cost one team the game.
It helps Northwestern that the seniors on this team have tasted bowl success during the 2013 Gator Bowl. If the game is close heading into the fourth quarter it is going to be interesting how the Tennessee players handle the game. With so many close game losses the players could start to think about the losses and doubt could creep in.
For fans that like to see strong defensive plays and ground and pound offense, this is going to be your game. The most important aspect to watch is how each team uses their best side of the ball, their defense, to control the other teams offense. Who ever does that is most likely celebrating in confetti.
Northwestern also released their Outback Bowl hype video on Sunday. As a fan of hype video’s I have to say this one is pretty cool – it got me pretty pumped for the game. Plus, it is nice to see Northwestern with a good hype video because most of their hype ups are pretty lame, sorry.