It's been over a month since the Northwestern Wildcats finished a highly-improbable 10-2 season by reclaiming the HAT against Illinois at Soldier Field. During that time, the Wildcats have lost Nick VanHoose to a finger injury but gotten VanHoose's fellow secondary member Kyle Queiro back from injury. And now there's one day left until Northwestern has a chance for an 11-win season for the first time in program history.
Tennessee presents a major challenge. The Volunteers have put major scares into two of the four College Football Playoff teams and have a highly-rated offense and defense. Can Northwestern pull off the upset and win its third bowl ever? Here's what our staff thinks. Let us know what you think below.
Henry Bushnell: Northwestern 20, Tennessee 17
Wait, what? Did I just write that?
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Hell yeah I did. I think Tennessee is a better, more talented team than Northwestern, but I really don't see where Tennessee has a huge advantage in the matchup. Its offense will be able to move the ball at times, but it's not a big play offense, and there's nothing that the Volunteers will be able to consistently exploit all game long. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee's defense hasn't been able to suffocate poor offenses. Over the second half of the season, it played Kentucky (S&P+ offense rank: 108), South Carolina (66) and Vanderbilt (116), and gave up an average of 23.33 points per game in those three games. Can Northwestern's offense get to 20? Absolutely, especially with a few explosive plays or a big play from its defense. My track record of picking Northwestern when I think the opponent is overrated isn't too good, but I'm going to do it again.
Josh Rosenblat: Tennessee 24, Northwestern 19
It's hard to see this game being anything but close. Northwestern will look in control early, getting the ball into Tennessee territory on multiple occasions in the first half, but the Wildcats will be unable to come away with touchdowns. Leaving points on the board will haunt the Wildcats. Tennessee's rush offense will be able to get just enough going while Josh Dobbs mixes in a few throws allowing the Vols to come from behind and take this one.
Zach Pereles: Tennessee 24, Northwestern 13
It would be a magical season if Northwestern won in Tampa. Ten wins with a freshman quarterback and coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons? No one could have possibly predicted that. But the magic will end here. It won't take a ton away from the season as a whole, but it definitely wouldn't be the ending that everyone would have hoped for. Northwestern's offense simply isn't good enough, and Tennessee's offense, which can be both explosive through the air and tough on the ground, is something Northwestern hasn't yet faced except for in Week 1 against Stanford. I don't see the defense having a repeat performance of that. Going into the fourth, Northwestern will trail 17-10 and get a field goal to get it to 17-13. But a long Tennessee touchdown drive against an exhausted defense seals the win for the Volunteers.
Sam Brief: Tennessee 21, Northwestern 10
Make no mistake with the 8-4 record, Tennessee is a very good football team. Take a look at this year's College Football Playoff-- the Volunteers had now No.4 Oklahoma down 17 at one point, and the Sooners needed two overtimes to win in Knoxville. No. 2 Alabama beat Tennessee by just five points at home and trailed late. Tennessee's balanced offense should pose problems for a generally stout Northwestern defense, but the biggest problems for the Wildcats I see being on the offensive end-- with a young Clayton Thorson leading a predictable offense against an SEC defense. Tennessee wins by double digits, but that doesn't undermine a marvelous season by Pat Fitzgerald's squad.
Ian McCafferty: Northwestern 24, Tennessee 21
Statistically, Tennessee is probably the better team, but lucky for Northwestern they don't play the games on paper. Northwestern's defense will do enough to keep them in the game, there's no reason to doubt that at this point, but they may have some trouble with 6-4 running back Jalen Hurd. More importantly, this will be a different offense than what we've seen in the regular season. Northwestern historically opens up the playbook for their bowl games, in fact the Outback Bowl record holder for most passing yards in a game is former Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka who had 532 yards and 4 TDs on 78 attempts (!!!) in 2010. Northwestern will get a big play or two early on to hang in it but still be down seven heading into the fourth. However Tennessee has been terrible in the fourth all season and Northwestern will tie it up and then win on a last second Jack Mitchell field goal.
Tristan Jung: Tennessee 27, Northwestern 20
In some respects, Northwestern and Tennessee are actually in very similar situations. Both teams are having their best seasons after a few years of mediocrity. Both are trying to reassert themselves in very difficult conferences for the first time in years. The Volunteers and the Wildcats have chips on their shoulders and the Outback Bowl will be the proving ground for each side. Ultimately, the more balanced all-around team will have a better chance to win the game, and Tennessee is definitely more balanced than Northwestern. Tennessee can beat teams in many different ways. It can play tight defense, explode on offense or make a special teams play. Northwestern really only has one way to win: suffocating defense and hoping everything goes well on offense. Other than the Stanford game, that strategy has worked against opponents that were significantly weaker than Tennessee and failed against teams that were better. That being said, don't buy into the SEC hype and expect a blowout. The best five Big Ten teams match up well against the best SEC teams, and Northwestern will keep this one close.