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Previewing Tennessee, Northwestern's Outback Bowl opponent

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The Volunteers started the season slowly, but ended it on a five-game winning streak.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The long wait for the Wildcats' bowl fate is over, as Northwestern will play in the Outback Bowl on New Years' Day against the SEC's Tennessee Volunteers.

Locked out of the official New Years' Six bowls, Northwestern ended up with the second best consolation prize, as the Wildcats get to spend the first day of 2016 in sunny Florida. The teams will head to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for an 11 a.m. (noon local time) kickoff on Jan. 1.

The No. 12 Wildcats' opponent, Tennessee, finished the regular season with five straight wins and an 8-4 record. The Volunteers lost to two of the College Football Playoff teams -- Alabama and Oklahoma -- by a combined 12 points after holding late leads in both games, and fell by seven or less points in each of their four defeats this season, the other two against Arkansas and Florida.

Northwestern also ended its season with a five-game winning streak to give the program 10 wins and its first bowl appearance since the 2012 Gator Bowl, in which the Wildcats beat Mississippi State 34-20.

This matchup is a rematch of the 1997 Citrus Bowl in Orlando in which Peyton Manning -- current teammate of Northwestern's own Trevor Siemian -- led his Volunteers team to a 48-28 thrashing of Gary Barnett's Wildcats. In that game, Manning's team went up 21-0 before the Wildcats responded with three unanswered scores to tie it up. But, Tennessee took it from there, going up 10 at half and coasting to a win.

The 2015 Tennessee Volunteers are very similar to the 1997 Vols in that they're led by a very talented quarterback. Junior Josh Dobbs isn't going to beat teams solely through the air, even though he has 15 passing touchdowns to just five interceptions this season, but he has shown an ability to stretch the field at times. He's also a top-notch running threat. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound signal-caller rushed for over 600 yards and nine scores in 12 games.

Dobbs' supporting cast is strongest in the backfield, as Tennessee boasts two solid running backs in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Hurd surpassed 1,100 yards on the ground in his sophomore campaign to go with 11 touchdowns. He was also used a fair amount in the passing game, with 21 catches and two scores.

Hurd's backfield partner, Kamara, is also a sophomore and averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2015. He posted just shy of 900 all-purpose yards (rushing and receiving) in his second year in Knoxville. In fact, both Kamara and Hurd are two of Tennessee's top six receiving targets, which shows just how involved they are in all aspects of the offensive attack.

On the other side of the ball, the Volunteers have a borderline top-25 defense, coming in at No. 26 in S&P+. However, they do have a tendency to give up big plays. Tennessee ranked 76th in the country in opponent isolated points per play, an explosiveness measure.

The Volunteers' biggest playmakers on defense are defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The two combined for 14 sacks during the regular season, and were the only Tennessee defenders to post double-digit tackles for loss. Strong safety Todd Kelly (three interceptions) anchors the secondary along with free safety Brian Randolph, who is second on the team in tackles.

Tennessee doesn't have one offensive or defensive unit that stands out, but its special teams are outstanding. The Volunteers rank first in the nation in kick return average and second in punt return average. Their coverage units are also good

Northwestern's defense will be the best of the four main units on the field on Jan. 1. But the Vols, who rank 19th in Football Outsiders' F/+ index and 12th in FEI, will be favored over NU.

We'll dig more into the matchup as New Year's Day nears.