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Outback Bowl opponent Q&A: Previewing Northwestern-Tennessee with Rocky Top Talk

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Every week during football season, we've be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on the upcoming game. For bowl week, we've done the same.

It's been a magical year for the Northwestern Wildcats; there's no other way to put it. There's one final test though, and it is one of the toughest of the year, the Tennessee Volunteers. Will Shelton of Rocky Top Talk took our questions, and I answered some of theirs on their site.

Inside NU: I think the best place to start when discussing Tennessee is Joshua Dobbs. The talented junior has a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio and is a major threat with his legs, with 623 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. What specifically makes him so good, and what will Northwestern need to do to slow him down?

Rocky Top Talk: Dobbs' real strength as a runner has more to do with his instincts than his outright speed: he knows when to tuck and run, takes excellent angles, and doesn't try to force things. Tennessee's offense has its identity in risk management: run the ball well, use quick strikes in the passing game, and don't get yourself beat. As such the Vols don't go downfield much at all, where Dobbs has been a risk in years past. Tennessee is 91st nationally in 20+ yard completions this season. You can take advantage of Dobbs if you can get Tennessee to third and long; the Vols have been really good converting third downs this year at 45.6%, but that's mostly because they've been good on first and second down in the run game. If you can make Dobbs have to throw from the pocket, you can find success defensively.

INU: This seems to be a run-first offense, with the Volunteers having run 215 more times than having thrown. Obviously some of that is Dobbs on unplanned scrambles, but there seems to be a pretty good stable of backs in Knoxville. What are the strengths of each runner, and how often should we expect to see each?

RTT: Jalen Hurd is unique because he's every bit of 6'3", which makes him look strange when he comes downhill with surprising speed. Hurd is a bully with the football who won't shy away from contact, and has been successful against great defenses from Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama this year (70 carries for 303 yards in those games). Alvin Kamara is the change-of-pace back, lightning quick and looking to get to the edge. The Vols like to put both of them in the game at the same time and run read option with Dobbs & Hurd while sending Kamara out of the backfield as a receiver. Because of the other two options you can't simply take away Hurd; Kentucky tried that and Hurd's worst statistical day (18 carries for 61 yards) was the offense's best statistical day (482 yards in 69 plays). Hurd will get the majority of the carries, but the threat of Dobbs and Kamara, especially when all three are on the field together, is what really makes Tennessee's offense dangerous.

INU: Although the offense has a lot of firepower, it's actually the defense that's more highly rated by S&P+ (40th vs. 25th). Who are some of the standouts on the Tennessee defense who Northwestern fans should watch out for?

RTT: Defensive end Derek Barnett has nine sacks despite getting the full attention of opposing offensive lines since fellow end Curt Maggitt was lost for the year in week two. He is probably Tennessee's best NFL prospect as a true sophomore. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has excelled in big games with 11 tackles at Alabama and a stunning 21 against Oklahoma. Corner Cameron Sutton will be the first Vol taken if he decides to declare for the NFL Draft as a junior; teams have spent most of the year not throwing at him while the Vols transitioned to junior college transfer Justin Martin at the other corner spot. Sutton is also second nationally in punt return average.

INU: When you look at Tennessee's schedule, you see a lot of close, late-game losses, but you also see improvement from the year before. Overall, what's been the general perception of this year? Are people generally thinking what could have been or are they happy with this season and excited for what lies ahead?

RTT: Coming into the year 8-4 was the majority prediction, and we knew it would represent clear progress as the Vols had done no better than 7-5 since 2007. But considering Tennessee blew a 17-3 lead on Oklahoma in the fourth quarter, then turned around and blew a 27-14 lead with ten minutes to go at Florida two weeks later thanks in large part to giving up a 63 yard touchdown on 4th and 14 in the final minutes? It's still hard for that not to color the entire narrative of the year. If just that 4th and 14 play goes differently, the Vols would have beaten the Gators for the first time since 2004 and won the SEC East for the first time since 2007. UT was also up 14-0 on Arkansas and lost. The season changed when Tennessee erased a 24-3 deficit against Georgia to win 38-31, then took Alabama to the wire in Tuscaloosa in a 19-14 loss, scoring to take the lead with five minutes to play. The nature of our schedule didn't allow for any truly meaningful wins in the last five games (which makes the opportunity to play #13 Northwestern incredibly welcome), so fans were probably more relieved than anything to get to 8-4 at the end. But regardless of one's level of contentment or disappointment with 2015, all involved are excited for what's next. Oklahoma and Alabama could play for the title, and the Vols led both in the final minutes. And Tennessee will bring back 18 starters next year with the first legitimate championship expectations for Tennessee in nine years.

INU: What is the most worrying aspect of this matchup for Tennessee, and how do you think the Volunteers will try to deal with that aspect?

RTT: This season has given us low-grade anxiety over ultra-conservative play calling, even when it's worked like a charm. I worry about what happens if the Vols trot out that ultra-conservative gameplan again, then end up settling for field goals against a Northwestern defense that's been very good in the red zone. Meanwhile if a few Northwestern wrinkles on offense catch a sleepy Vol defense off guard, I worry about trying to come from behind against this team. There's a scenario here where Northwestern wins a very ugly football game and Tennessee fans get to spend the next eight months reconnecting dots to conservative mistakes against Oklahoma and Florida. Those are not conversations I want to have.

INU: Fill in the blank: Tennessee wins this game if _____.

RTT: Josh Dobbs runs for more than 35 yards. That's been the magic number for the Vols the last two years. Throwing out games against Western Carolina and North Texas where Dobbs almost never ran to protect his health in games we were going to win anyway, Tennessee is 11-1 when Dobbs has run for 35+ yards and 0-4 when he hasn't in his starts at quarterback the last two years. If Dobbs can run successfully there is just so much a defense has to worry about. But if he doesn't (and often because he got sacked in the pocket on third and long), Tennessee's downfield passing game hasn't been good enough to make up the difference.

INU: Prediction time: Who's winning come New Year's Day?

RTT: I do think there's a chance Tennessee tries to win this game the way they beat Missouri with a bigger cloud of dust than Northwestern can generate, and we end up with something ugly like that 19-8 game. But having seen the way Butch Jones and company carved up Iowa with new wrinkles in last year's bowl game, I like the idea that Tennessee will come out with something a little more diverse offensively and find a little more breathing room. The quality gap between Tennessee's defense and Northwestern's offense is just bigger than what we'll see when the Vols have the ball; add in Tennessee's excellent special teams play and I think field position will do some of the work for the Vols here. I've got Tennessee 27, Northwestern 13.