Why Northwestern will beat Tennessee:
1. Northwestern's defense plays up to its billing
When Northwestern's defense plays well, the Wildcats usually emerge victorious. While this is obvious to anyone who has paid attention to Northwestern this season, it's still the most important factor in whether Northwestern wins the game. However, will the defense will be able to stop Tennessee's dangerous offense?
The loss of cornerback Nick VanHoose is a big blow to Northwestern's secondary. When Matt Harris got injured earlier this year and half of the usual cornerback tandem was absent, Northwestern's pass defense suffered. VanHoose and Harris have formed a solid and at-times spectacular duo, and the drop-off could be decisive. Marcus McShepard and Keith Watkins have experience at corner, but they do not bring the same pass breakup and route-jumping skills that VanHoose has. Kyle Quiero could also be in the rotation at corner, but he is just returning from a broken arm and hasn't played in a while; his game-readiness could be a major factor.
More on the Matchup
More on the Matchup
Ultimately, if Northwestern gets great performances from Anthony Walker, Dean Lowry, and the other defensive playmakers on the team, it can definitely shut down the Volunteer offense. Northwestern's run defense has been excellent since its disastrous performance against Iowa, and it has shut down or at least limited elite running backs throughout the year save Michigan and Iowa. Likewise, if the line can get pressure on Joshua Dobbs on a consistent basis, that will alleviate some pressure on the secondary missing one of its senior leaders. The pass defense has to step up and force some mistakes from Dobbs, but we've seen Northwestern's secondary dominate good quarterbacks this season as well. This season, Tennessee struggled offensively against Alabama and Missouri, both top 25 defenses by S&P. Northwestern is arguably the best defense that Tennessee has faced since the Alabama game.
2. Northwestern's punt and kickoff coverage units play well
While special teams are usually not a decisive factor, Tennessee's vaunted special teams unit will be a problem for Northwestern in this game. Evan Berry and Cameron Sutton combined for five return touchdowns this season. Berry's average kick return yardage is a staggering 38.3 yards. With Northwestern's sputtering offense already hurting the team's field position, Northwestern cannot afford to have Tennessee gain huge chunks of return yardage.Tennessee is 20th in offensive field position and 2nd in defensive field position this season. If the special teams falter, Northwestern will have a very hard time winning the field position battle and the game, by extension. See the Michigan game, when Jehu Chesson took back the opening kickoff; the game was all but over just seconds into the game. Taking away what has been one of the Volunteers' greatest strengths this year will be key to Northwestern's chances to win this game.
3. Clayton Thorson makes plays in the passing game, aided by a strong running game
Tennessee's defense is 25th in S&P and solid against the run and the pass. Again, Northwestern may have to follow Alabama's example from Tennessee's 19-14 defeat earlier this year. Tennessee limited Jake Coker and the Alabama passing offense, but Derrick Henry was able to gain 143 yards and two touchdowns as Alabama rode its defense to victory. Tennessee's pass defense is ranked slightly worse than its rushing defense by S&P, but that slight weakness is negated by Northwestern's anemic passing attack. Tennessee has excellent talent at linebacker and in its front seven, but the pass defense is still beatable.
Now, while Northwestern should theoretically try to emulate Alabama and go for a run-heavy scheme, that might not be effective. While Justin Jackson has been able to find running room in the last few games, he struggled against elite run defenses such as Iowa and Michigan (he also struggled during much of the game against Wisconsin, despite the high yardage total). Tennessee will also be expecting Northwestern to run the ball at every opportunity, which plays right into the Volunteers' hands. The offense needs Clayton Thorson and Northwestern's wide receivers to make some plays downfield. While Jackson always has the ability to break big runs, Thorson may need to throw the ball to establish Northwestern offensively if the offensive line can't block for Jackson. It may be necessary for Thorson to have some drives akin to his best moments against Ball State and Nebraska.
On the other hand, however, Northwestern establishing the run early and often and getting a few important plays in the passing game is the formula for success and one Northwestern has followed throughout the year. First down is huge in this game. If Jackson can constantly grind out four or five yards, that not only opens the playbook (well, as open as Mick McCall will open it), but it also takes the pressure off Thorson. Yes, he'll need to make some big throws; Tennessee has had weeks to prepare for the running game. But it'll be much easier for the redshirt freshman to do that if he's in manageable down-and-distance situations.
Why Northwestern won't beat Tennessee
1. Northwestern's offense puts the defense in holes throughout the game
This is another fairly obvious point. Despite four great defensive performances, Northwestern nearly lost its last four games because its offense could not sustain drives. Northwestern's offense has struggled for the entire season and put a huge amount of pressure on the defense. The problem with that is if the defense plays at any level below fantastic against Tennessee, Northwestern will struggle to come back. Let's say Tennessee gets a big play on special teams and goes up 10-0 after the first quarter. Northwestern's offense has not shown the ability to chase the game and relieve the defense this season. The only times Northwestern has been reliable on offense have been against mediocre defensive teams (Ball State, Nebraska). If the defense falters once or twice against Tennessee's balanced and powerful offense, Tennessee will be in the driver's seat.
2. Joshua Dobbs gets it done through the air and on the ground
Tennessee is very good at running the ball. The Volunteers are 25th in total rushing yards and 17th in rushing S&P. While Jalen Hurd is a good running back, Dobbs' running ability sets Tennessee apart from other teams. He can singlehandedly destroy teams on the ground while also protecting the ball and making huge throws. For example, he ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns and may have gotten Mark Richt fired during Tennessee's stunning 38-31 win over Georgia. Oh yeah, he also threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that ended the year 11th in S&P. When he's firing on all cylinders, Dobbs is essentially a much-improved version of Clayton Thorson, as Martin Oppegaard noted, and Tennessee's offense can beat any defense in the country.
Northwestern's performances against dual-threat quarterbacks has been mixed, admittedly with a small sample size. Duke's Thomas Sirk had a nice day against Northwestern with 61 yards and a touchdown. Tommy Armstrong did not have an efficient performance on the ground, but he was Nebraska's best red-zone option as the Wildcats gave up two short touchdowns to Nebraska's quarterback. Northwestern has shut down elite running backs in recent weeks, but Dobbs gives Northwestern a different look. He can make things happen when plays break down.
3. Tennessee's run defense keeps Justin Jackson in check
As mentioned earlier, if Tennessee can handle Justin Jackson, Northwestern will be forced to rely on its inefficient and ineffective passing attack. Northwestern's offensive line has battled injuries all season and is a major weakness. Tennessee's main goal on defense is to play to its strengths and shut down the run. Tennessee has to prevent Jackson from breaking off big plays, which is easier said than done. However, if Jackson can't find running room, much of Northwestern's offensive potential is neutralized. Again, if Northwestern can take advantage of Tennessee's vulnerable secondary, Tennessee's defense could have a tough day. But Tennessee will be expecting Northwestern to rely exclusively on the run, which does not bode well for Northwestern's offense.