The national perception between the SEC and other conferences is most prevalent in this matchup. Northwestern, a 10-2 team that had wins over Stanford and Wisconsin, is a large underdog against an eight-win Tennessee squad. The Volunteers are currently a -8.5 point favorite (at betonline Sportsbook) in the OUtback Bowl.
The Wildcats had an impressive season considering what was expected of them. They opened things with a big win over Stanford and then a road win at Duke to start the season 5-0. After a hiccup in the middle of the season in two bad losses to Michigan and Iowa, they figured things out again to take down Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Sure, Northwestern got destroyed by the better teams on its Schedule, but that Stanford win can’t be discredited.
Tennessee was pretty much the same way except with a more difficult Schedule. The Volunteers just couldn’t pull out wins against better teams. They should have beaten both Oklahoma and Florida early in the season, but instead faltered to see both those teams thrive throughout the rest of the year. But after starting 3-4, the Vols turned things around with an easier Schedule to close the year with five straight wins. Of course, none of those wins actually came against a bowl team, so there’s that.
Northwestern wins Games with its defense and that’ll have to be the case here. Tennessee can Score– 34.3 points per Game — but a lot of those numbers were accrued against weaker opponents, most notably 114 points scored vs. Bowling Green and Western Carolina in early-season Games.
Tennessee got decent play out of quarterback Joshua Dobbs this year, but it wasn’t anything over the top. He finished the season with 15 TDs and 5 INTs through the air, while also contributing 623 yards and 9 TDs on the ground. His ability as a dual-threat really killed the weaker teams. But in addition to Dobbs, both Jalen Hurd (1,158 yards, 11 TDs) and Alvin Kamara (645 yards, 6 TDs) had great seasons on the ground and were a main reason the team closed with a winning streak.
The Wildcats don’t really have a weakness in their defense, but can’t slip up like they did in those Michigan and Iowa Games. For Northwestern to win, that will require holding Hurd and Kamara in check most of the way and making Dobbs beat them through the air.
That needs to happen because Northwestern’s offense is beyond inconsistent, scoring 22.5 points per Game. The Wildcats will want to keep this Game low scoring and that starts with getting their own ground Game going.
That means feeding running back Justin Jackson early and often. The sophomore back had 72 carries combined in the last two Games and has hit 100 yards in Four straight. He’s going to be vital in the rush-heavy approach Northwestern takes. But if Tennessee gets an early lead, that could mean trouble, just like in the Michigan and Iowa Games.
Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson is not someone you want airing it out. He finished with 7 TDs and 7 INTs on the year while completing only 51.6% of his passes. That’s a main reason Northwestern need to keep this Game defensive, otherwise it could easily get out of control in their first bowl Game since 2012, in which they beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
The Wildcats finished the year going 4-1 ATS in their final five Games, while the Volunteers covered their final two Games as favorites. Also for Tennessee, the over has hit five straight times in neutral-site Games.
Our Pick – It’s very difficult to explain the two Game slip up by Northwestern mid season, losing to Michigan and Iowa in blowout fashion. But the fact remains, when you win 10 Games in a college football season, you’re doing something right. The team knows how to win.
ACCording to Our model, if Northwestern is going to get the money in this one, they are going to have to hold the Vols to 21 or less. That’s because Our model has Northwestern scoring just 14.
The good news for Northwestern backers is that they did in fact hold 9 opponents to 21 or less.
We would have obviously preferred to have jumped on this one early grabbing the +11 or so that was offered when the openers came out. But we think there’s still some value left at the current number. Northwestern +8.5