Who: Northwestern vs. Tennessee
What: Outback Bowl
When: Friday, Noon ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
Spread: Tennessee -8.5
Matchup to watch: Jalen Hurd vs. Northwestern front seven
To call Jalen Hurd a poor man’s Derrick Henry would be a slap in the face to the Tennessee running back. Hurd is definitely not a poor man’s anything, but he does have a similar build and skill set to the Heisman Trophy winner. At 6-4, 240 pounds, arm tackles don’t work. His ability to wear a defense down was critical in helping the Volunteers end the regular season on a five-game winning streak. But none of those defenses are as stout as Northwestern’s. Anthony Walker and Dean Lowry solidified one of the nation’s top front sevens. For those that weren’t paying attention, the Wildcats got to double-digit wins by stopping the run and getting off the field on third down. That’s how Northwestern ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak of its own. The Wildcats can make it six by gang-tackling Hurd before he gets to the second level.
Thing I’m excited to see: Northwestern’s chip
Coaches know spreads. Players know spreads. Fans know spreads. They especially know the spread when the team slotted 10 spots behind the other is nearly a double-digit favorite. That’s the case for Northwestern, which despite picking up 10 wins, including one against Rose Bowl invitee Stanford, is an 8.5-point underdog. The Wildcats finished the regular season doing exactly what Tennessee did, which was win five in a row against sub-par conference competition. I’m curious if that prompts an effort like we saw from Northwestern in the season opener against Stanford. For all but two games, that was the same team we saw throughout 2015. They were disciplined, they won the battle at the line of scrimmage, and they controlled the clock with Justin Jackson. Will we see that same narrative play out against another team everyone is assuming will dominate Northwestern?
Number to remember: 36
That’s how many carries Jackson averaged in Northwestern’s final two games. Quietly, Jackson was one of the best backs in America in 2015. Only four guys had more carries than the sophomore, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the way Pat Fitzgerald likes to run the offense. Simply put, Northwestern is a better team when No. 21 is at the center of it. For that to happen, however, the Wildcats can’t afford to fall behind early. Clayton Thorson isn’t a guy that can lead a team back from a big deficit yet. He is a guy that can be effective when playing with a lead. Derek Barnett and the Vols know that if they can force some third-and-longs, they’ll get Northwestern out of its offensive comfort zone. But very few teams have been able to do that this year.
Prediction: Northwestern 17, Tennessee 14
As I just hinted at, teams haven’t been successful in dictating the tempo against Northwestern. I don’t think this is a game in which either offense shines because of how talented the defenses are. All signs point to both squads running the ball a ton. If Josh Dobbs or Clayton Thorson throw the ball 30 times in this one, it would be a surprise. I don’t think we see a bunch of big plays, either. But when Northwestern needs a big score, Dan Vitale comes up big. The Wildcats earn their third bowl win in school history and make the oddsmakers look foolish in the process.