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Northwestern vs. Tennessee: Outback Bowl preview

Previewing the Outback Bowl between Northwestern and Tennessee. 

Northwestern (10–2) vs. Tennessee (8–4)

Jan. 1, 12 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)

Reason to watch

Talented running backs. Northwestern and Tennessee both feature young runners who are the centerpiece of their offense. For the Volunteers, it’s sophomore Jalen Hurd who earned most of the carries. Hurd ran for 1,158 yards on 253 carries in the regular season, scoring 11 touchdowns. Hurd’s consistency was key for the Volunteers’ offense. He carried the ball at least 15 times in every game but one, and he also proved himself to be a capable threat as a receiver out of the backfield. For the Wildcats, Justin Jackson shouldered a huge load on the ground, racking up 298 carries for 1,344 yards. Jackson scored only four times, but his touchdown numbers were deflated by Northwestern's running back rotation near the goal line. After a 1–2 stretch in which Jackson carried the ball only 12,10 and 14 times, Pat Fitzgerald fed his star back over 120 times in Northwestern’s last four games, and Jackson responded by posting huge numbers. 

Keep an eye on: The quarterbacks

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This game could very well be decided on which quarterback makes a big play late in the game. The Wildcats are counting on redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, who has flashed greatness, but has not shown he can be counted on to carry the offense. The Volunteers similarly don’t ask much from Joshua Dobbs, but the junior was efficient and limited his turnovers when called upon. Thorson has the ability to scramble, which has saved Northwestern’s offense at times. Will the big stage shake Thorson? Can Dobbs find his rhythm against a tough pass rush? Although neither are their team’s star, the quarterbacks of the Outback Bowl will be needed at some point, and whoever rises to the occasion could make the ultimate difference in the game 

Did you know...?

A win would give Northwestern its most wins in a season in program history with 11. The Wildcats’ last bowl game was the Gator Bowl after the 2012 season, and a win in that game gave Fitzgerald the most wins for a coach in program history, and was also the school’s first bowl win since the 1940s. Northwestern’s last appearance in the Outback Bowl, an overtime loss to Auburn, was perhaps the craziest loss ever for a team that’s made a habit losing in ridiculous fashion. The Volunteers are sixth all-time with 26 bowl wins, but Tennessee has not won back-to-back bowl games in the 21st century. The Volunteers can end that streak against Northwestern.

Final analysis

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The advanced statistics in this game heavily favor the Volunteers, even though they are ranked much lower than the Wildcats. Tennessee played a fairly weak schedule, but it handily won the games it was supposed. Northwestern seems to be extra motivated for this game after a perceived snub from the playoff committee. The Wildcats had a decent case for a New Year’s Six bowl based solely on their resume, but the Cats’ impressive record in close games hints the team may not be as strong as its record would indicate. And extra motivation probably won't be enough for Northwestern to will itself to win against a strong Tennessee team.

The pick: Tennessee 24, Northwestern 17