Tennessee Football: 5 Bold Predictions for the Volunteers' Bowl Game
Tennessee will ring in the New Year in Tampa and try to kick off in style a 2016 that has been earmarked as a huge year in coach Butch Jones' Volunteers rebuilding project.
This season was a step in the right direction, even if it didn't have the outcome that could have been had the Vols not blown early-season, fourth-quarter leads. But with a little bit of swagger following a surge toward the end of the season and a rest for an oft-injured team, the Outback Bowl finale could hold big things.
As a matter of fact, if Tennessee plays up to its potential against Northwestern, it could be just the catalyst the team needs heading into the offseason ahead of a year that will feature plenty of upperclassmen in key positions.
The Vols have the ability to run through and around Northwestern, but the Wildcats are no pushover. They boast a strong defense and a good running back.
UT won't be able to sleepwalk through the game and win. But after boat-racing Big Ten opponent Iowa in a Florida bowl (TaxSlayer) to end last season, that should give you an idea of how revved up the Vols get when it comes to playing in the postseason.
If they replicate that performance, it'll be a strong end to a nine-win season. So let's take a look at some bold predictions for UT in the Outback Bowl.
Tennessee Will Double What Northwestern Allows on the Ground
One of the reasons why Northwestern has won 10 games and been so strong this year is because opponents simply can't generate anything on the ground against the Wildcats.
They've been downright nasty against the run, allowing fewer than 118 rushing yards per game—good enough for 14th nationally.
That number is a bit deceiving, though. A closer look shows the Wildcats only played two teams in the nation's top 50 in rushing offense (Stanford and Iowa) and four in the top 90. And they'll be exposed against Tennessee's dominant rush.
The Vols ranked 21st nationally in rush offense, and though the Cardinal are ranked two places above the Vols, coach Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern team got to play Stanford in the season's opening week and early in the afternoon—a notoriously difficult time slot for West Coast teams.
But the Vols can run at you in all directions. That's why they'll not only eclipse 118 yards, they'll get twice that, which would make the Vols the only team to do that this season against Northwestern besides Iowa, which rushed for 294 yards.
There's just too many weapons to handle for a team that's lacking in top-end speed. Not only can Jalen Hurd be the punishing runner between the tackles, he shows an extra burst when he's well-rested. And the month off will be beneficial to him, much the way it was prior to last year's game against the Hawkeyes.
Then you've got speedy sophomore Alvin Kamara, who possesses the kind of second gear that is difficult to find in the Big Ten outside of Ohio State. UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, he told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan.
I think they each stand on their own. I think Alvin is one of the best in the country, and I think Jalen's one of the best in the country. I think we're fortunate to have both of those guys, and it helps us on offense to keep teams off balance. There are so many things we can do with each of those guys, so I don’t know (about) comparing them. But I know I'm glad we've got them.
Finally, there's Joshua Dobbs, and he's the X-Factor in the run game. There wasn't a single quarterback on Northwestern's schedule that came close to mirroring the dual-threat capabilities of Dobbs.
Tennessee is going to tear up some turf in Raymond James Stadium, and the Vols will run their way to the win.
A Freshman Will Lead the Team in Receiving
When Tennessee had success through the air this year, it was usually because Von Pearson, Josh Malone or Josh Smith had a strong day. That trio carried the bulk of the Vols' receiving production this year.
But none of those guys will lead UT in receiving yards against Northwestern.
Instead, that distinction will go to either freshman Jauan Jennings or classmate Preston Williams, who missed the season's final six games after suffering a hamstring injury against Georgia.
Before that, Williams was beginning to live up to his lofty recruiting rating. Though he had a crushing red-zone fumble against Arkansas that was one of the costliest mistakes of the season for the Vols, he also provided a deep threat.
The 6'4", 209-pound Lovejoy, Georgia, native even produced a three-catch, 98-yard, two-score performance against Western Carolina.
Then just like a lot of his receiver mates, Williams' season went down the drain with injury. UT passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni told Knoxville News Sentinel's Troy Provost-Heron late in the year that injuries made a difference for the Vols:
It would be a lot different right now (if we had everybody healthy) just as far as practice and reps and how we can prepare. I'll tell you what, we're down to less than half of those guys that we started two-a-days with, so the guys that are in there are being warriors and I’m proud of them. … But would I love to have all those guys? Man, it would be a whole different animal if we could, that’s for sure.
Williams is expected to play against the Wildcats, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him racing down the sideline and on the receiving end of a Dobbs deep ball. Also, Jennings showed what he could do all through preseason practice and wound up with 13 catches for 142 yards during the year.
Both players have legit talent, and they'll be heavily relied upon next year. These extra practices may be just what they need to begin the hype train a little early.
Vols Defense Allows Fewer Than 17 Points
The Wildcats are far from a juggernaut offense, as evidenced by their performances against ranked opponents. Though they went 2-2 in those games against Stanford, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin, they averaged fewer than 10 points per game.
They will similarly struggle against the Vols.
On paper, defensive coordinator John Jancek's unit is nowhere near an elite team, but you'd never know that by watching the majority of the second half of Tennessee's season. Though there were lapses such as stretches against Vanderbilt and the third quarter against South Carolina, the Vols were strong overall.
They definitely turned the season around on that side of the ball.
The Vols are quick, they're fast and they're disruptive in getting to the quarterback with havoc-wreakers like Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Corey Vereen. They also possess plenty of talent on the back level, even though the secondary struggled more than expected this season.
But those aren't the biggest reasons why it'll be a struggle for Northwestern to score.
The Wildcats scored touchdowns inside the red zone just 39 percent of the time, which is 126th nationally; only two teams were worse. Now they have to play one of the top bend-but-don't-break defenses in the country.
The Vols are 23rd nationally in red-zone defense, and they tend to tighten up once drives get close to the goal line.
With the needed rest, defenders such as Reeves-Maybin and a thin defensive tackle rotation are going to have some time to get healthy. They'll look like a whole new team, and with redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson under center, you can bet Jancek will dial up the pressure and try to rattle him.
If the Vols do, it'll be a long day for Northwestern.
This Will Be Cameron Sutton's Final Game in Orange and White
After a couple of marquee seasons to start his collegiate career, Tennessee junior cornerback Cameron Sutton wasn't as consistent in 2015.
He still had a stellar year, and with his size, press-coverage skills and work ethic, it would not be a surprise to see him forego his final season on Rocky Top. Though Sutton could benefit from another year in college, he has the all-around package that NFL teams covet in cornerbacks.
If ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay's latest projections come to fruition, Sutton is good as gone. In his first round, McShay has the Jonesboro, Georgia, defender going 24th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He'd be crazy to turn down first-round money.
If he gets that kind of draft grade, Sutton will go, and nobody should blame him. Even so, that's not something he's worried about right now, or at least that's what he's telling the media.
"We've got one more (game), and after that, I'll make my decision on all that stuff and worry about that after," Sutton told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan. "But we’re working on another win."
Other underclassmen who could find their way to the NFL are running back Alvin Kamara and outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Both have bright futures, but each should return to college. It would be difficult to see either one of them bypassing another year in orange to test the NFL waters.
Each could gain bigger paydays by coming back and shining.
Sutton, on the other hand, is already getting plenty of love from some of the top draft analysts in the game. If his stock keeps rising, he'll play his final game for the Vols against Northwestern.
The Vols Will Win by Double Digits
Northwestern is 10-2 and ranked in the top 15. Tennessee is 8-4 and barely sneaked its way into the Top 25 of the final College Football Playoff ranking.
So why are the Vols anywhere from 7.5- to nine-point favorites over the Wildcats, according to Odds Shark?
Perhaps it's because of all the talent UT possesses at the skill positions and all the team speed on defense. Maybe it's because the Vols play in the rugged Southeastern Conference, and their four losses are to quality teams, (including two playoff opponents), by 17 total points.
The Vols are strong, they're talented and their battle-tested.
Have they been dominant this season and consistently looked good? No. Have they proved they can hang with anybody in the nation by playing competitively against one of the nation's toughest schedules? Absolutely.
Northwestern can't say that.
The Wildcats have an exceptional win on their resume with a 16-6 victory over Stanford. But no matter how much coach Pat Fitzgerald wants to scoff at the notion, there are arguable asterisks next to that win because it was really before the Cardinal found themselves.
Fitzgerald's team came out of the weak, weak West division of the Big Ten. The Wildcats were dragged 40-10 by Iowa. They lost 38-0 to Michigan.
This is a good football team, but Northwestern simply doesn't have the horses to hang with the Vols. That line is so high—and truly, it isn't high enough—because Vegas realizes that.
Unless the Vols sleepwalk in the second half like they did early in the season, they'll win by 10 or more points. It wouldn't be surprising for them to beat the Cats by two touchdowns.
This is a very good team right now, and the way coach Butch Jones' squad played last year after a long bowl hiatus, there's no reason to expect a letdown. The Vols realize they can prove plenty with a lopsided win, and that should be the expectation.
All stats gathered from CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.