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Three matchups to watch between Northwestern and Tennessee in the Outback Bowl

As Northwestern takes on the Volunteers, defense and Dan Vitale might very well be the difference

A big day from Dan Vitale could really help to Wildcats
A big day from Dan Vitale could really help to Wildcats
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is just a few days away. So with Friday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. We've done 12 of these, but here's the last one. Let's look at the three matchups that will determine the Outback Bowl against Tennessee.

1. Deonte Gibson vs. Kyler Kerbyson

It's pretty clear that Northwestern's defense as a whole will play a pivotal part in this game, as it has all season, but the matchup to watch is Deonte Gibson against Tennessee left tackle Kyler Kerbyson. Gibson has been hot the last four games for the Wildcats, with four sacks and seven tackles for loss, and will look to bring this momentum into the bowl game. Kerbyson was the starting left tackle for Tennessee all season, twice being named SEC offensive lineman of the week, and was a key part of a Volunteer rushing that ran for 224 yards per game. The matchup itself is pretty even, but that doesn't affect its importance.

This matchup is important for two reasons. First Gibson will need to be able to get pressure on quarterback Joshua Dobbs to help slow down the passing game and make Dobbs uncomfortable. As Will Shelton said in our Q&A, making Dobbs throw from the pocket is key to slowing this offense down. However, this matchup is vital in slowing down the Tennessee's running game and most notably the read-option. Northwestern hasn't really faced too much of a read-option attack this season, but the one play that comes to mind is Tommy Armstrong Jr. absolutely freezing Gibson with a fake pitch on a touchdown run earlier in the year. Gibson will have to do a much better job reading those plays, as slowing down the read option may be the key to coming out victorious. Similarly, hitting and slowing down Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd will be important since he's 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and may cause physical harm to Northwestern's safeties if he hits the second level. This matchup between Gibson and Kerbyson, as well as the rest of the line, is what will decide this game.

Advantage: Even

2. Marcus McShepard/Keith Watkins vs. Josh Malone/Josh Smith

The one place in which Northwestern's defense might be in trouble in the bowl game is the corner opposite of Matthew Harris. Marcus McShepard and Keith Watkins are both solid cornerbacks but they're not Matthew Harris or Nick VanHoose. Tennessee doesn't really have a true No. 1-type of receiver on the outside, but Harris will most likely be matched up with Von Pearson most of the time. That leaves the number two option to whoever is playing with Harris. Josh Malone is currently listed as the number two receiver on the depth chart but Josh Smith is listed as a starter as well. Malone is 6-foot-3, 197 pounds and will cause matchup problems for whoever is covering him. Smith isn't as tall-- he's 6-foot-1-- but is much bigger at 216 pounds. Whoever McShepard/Watkins sees on the outside, Tennessee will certainly target them instead of trying to test Harris. As a side note, it will be interesting to see how much Kyle Queiro is involved. He missed much of the season with a broken forearm, but impressed against Stanford and, depending on his game-readiness, could draw one of these guys as well.

Advantage: Tennessee

3. Dan Vitale vs. Malik Foreman/Darrin Kirkland Jr.

Tennessee's defense is good, but not great. However, their rushing defense has been at least slightly better than their passing defense for most of the season (25th vs 43rd in S&P+). That, combined with the fact that the Volunteers will almost certainly be stacking the box to stop Justin Jackson, meanss Northwestern is going to have to find a way to move the ball through the air. Tennessee's cornerbacks on the outside are relatively small, but Northwestern doesn't have anyone who can effectively exploit that. The one mismatch that they do have comes in the form of superback Dan Vitale.

Vitale will more than likely be matched up with Tennessee's nickel corner Malik Foreman on passing downs, or one of their linebackers, probably middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., if he's coming out of the backfield. Vitale has a unique advantage against each of these players. He's bigger and stronger than Foreman and faster than Kirkland, and Northwestern needs to make sure they exploit this advantage.  Tennessee has had some trouble with opposing tight ends this season, but mostly against bigger guys: Alabama's O.J. Howard and Georgia's Jay Rome are both 6-6 and 250 pounds; that's a matchup nightmare for anyone. Ultimately the key here will be how Northwestern decides to Vitale. The mismatch is there but it has to be exploited. If some of the plays used against Ball State resurface, Vitale may be in for a big day.

Advantage: Northwestern