Bowl Breakdown: Outback

Publish date:
t1_ikegwuonu.jpg's Luke Winn analyzes the matchup.

The Badgers, as has long been their M.O., lived by the run this season. Sixty-two percent of their offensive plays came on the ground. But will workhorse back P.J. Hill, a sophomore who ran 217 times for 1,080 yards in '07, be the one carrying the load on New Year's Day? Hill suffered a leg injury in the first quarter of a game against Indiana on Oct. 27 and had just five carries in UW's final three games. Coach Bret Bielema said on Saturday that Hill, who has showed signs of a recovery during practices in Tampa, would play in the Outback Bowl but wouldn't start. Smaller-bodied freshman Zach Brown (111 carries, 539 yards, five TDs) will get that nod, while normal third-stringer Lance Smith (65 carries, 411 yards, three TDs) will also be in the mix. In the passing game, Badgers senior quarterback Tyler Donovan overwhelmingly favors one weapon: All-America tight end Travis Beckum, who has more than three times the receptions (73) of any UW wideout, as well as more than two times the receiving yards (960).

Wisconsin's defense took a significant step back after ranking fifth in the nation in total defense in '06. It gave up 97.3 more yards per game in '07 (350.4 yards as opposed to 253.1) and dropped to 36th. Senior defensive end Matt Shaugnessy, who had a team-high 16 tackles for loss as well as five sacks, is the top force up front, while sophomore Shane Carter, a first-year starter at safety, ranked first in the Big Ten in interceptions with seven. A glaring hole heading into the bowl game is at the defensive back spot opposite junior Jack Ikegwuonu, where not one but two players -- junior Allen Langford and freshman Aaron Henry -- suffered season-ending ACL tears. Senior Ben Strickland, who saw limited time as a backup corner, is the most likely replacement.

The Volunteers have been incredibly proficient at protecting quarterback Erik Ainge. They've given up just four sacks all season, for an average of 0.31 sacks allowed per game that ranks No. 1 in the nation. (Wisconsin, meanwhile, has given up 2.5 sacks per game, ranking 85th.) Ainge, who threw for 3,157 yards this season, should challenge the Badgers' depleted secondary. Freshman wideout Gerald Jones, who sees occasional action as a spread-option QB, is a dangerous change of pace. The Vols will be without their top pass-catcher, Lucas Taylor, who caught 73 passes for 1,000 yards. Taylor is one of six Tennessee players who were ruled academically ineligible for the bowl game.

Tennessee was also damaged on the defensive end by academic ineligibility: it will be missing its second-leading tackler, linebacker Rico McCoy, and one of its starting anchors on the defensive line, tackle Demonte Bolden. Collectively the Vols were the second-worst SEC team in total defense, giving up 407.6 yards per game. (Only Ole Miss, which finished 0-8 in league play, was worse.) Their standouts who remain eligible for the Outback Bowl are linebacker Jerod Mayo, who led the team with 127 tackles, and playmaking safety Eric Berry, who had five interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown.

This Outback has to be somewhat of a letdown for the Vols, who were on the verge of a conference title and BCS berth, but squandered a fourth-quarter lead against LSU in the SEC championship game. Missing out on the BCS was a long-accepted fate for the Badgers, who lost back-to-back Big Ten games to Illinois and Penn State on the first two weekends in October, and therefore should have an easier time getting up for this game. And while Wisconsin's secondary is likely to be exploited by Ainge's arm, the Badgers will counter with enough scoring strikes from Donovan to Beckum, and a big combined rushing day between Hill, Brown and Smith.

The pick: Wisconsin 28, Tennessee 27