Northwestern, Tennessee look to further momentum in Outback Bowl
While more people will watch the Michigan State-Alabama College Football Playoff game the previous day, this Big Ten-SEC matchup between Northwestern and Tennessee will also be worth your time.
If you boil the year down, neither team can be extremely disappointed about their season. Northwestern spoiled Stanford’s playoff campaign on the first day of the season and Tennessee played close games against Alabama and Oklahoma; both were expected to blow them out. Before the Wildcats and Volunteers look forward to 2016, they first must determine who will be more satisfied about their 2015 campaigns.
This is expected to be an old-school game with defenses and run games taking the forefront, rather than quarterbacks passing for 400 yards in spread offenses. Tennessee has eight different defenders who graded out above +3.0 on the season, while Northwestern has 10 such players. Stopping the Tennessee running game will be the key factor in determining the winner of the Outback Bowl. The Volunteers average 223.5 yards on the ground this season while Northwestern only yields 117.8 rushing yards per game.
Players to watch
Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara
Although Jalen Hurd is the primary running back on the Tennessee offense, Kamara is considered the more dangerous one. Kamara has been the third most elusive running back in the SEC behind only Leonard Fournette and Stanley Williams, forcing 23 missed tackles on runs and another 12 on receptions. Kamara’s skills in the passing game are also shown by the fact that he’s dropped only one of his 34 catchable targets and his 2.71 yards per route run is second in the nation only to Stanford superstar Christian McCaffrey.
Tennessee’s Derek Barnett
There is a very good chance that Barnett will be the best player on the field in this game as he earned the second-highest overall grade among 4-3 defensive ends in the nation behind only Ohio State’s Joey Bosa. Barnett had the second-best pass rushing productivity rating among 4-3 defensive ends in the SEC and recorded the most total pressures among his peers with 56 (nine sacks, 10 hits and 37 hurries). However, Barnett is more than a steady pass rusher; he’s an asset against the run as well. His 24 run stops were tied for second-most among 4-3 defensive ends in his conference.
Northwestern’s Justin Jackson
It is not easy to highlight anyone from the Northwestern offense because the entire unit has struggled all season. Jackson actually gets the nod here because of his freshman year than his 2015 season. In 2014, Jackson forced 64 missed tackles, which was more than that of future NFL products David Cobb, Ameer Abdullah or T.J. Yeldon, among others. Furthermore, Jackson did not have a single fumble in his freshman season compared to three this year. The Wildcats would really benefit from the old Jackson in 2016 and we can hope that we will see that as a springboard on New Year’s Day.
Northwestern’s Dean Lowry
Lowry has been one of the most versatile 4-3 defensive ends in the Big Ten this season. While the four sacks he recorded can be deceiving, Lowry has been a lot more disruptive than what the stats indicate. His 33 quarterback hurries were tied for fourth-most in the conference. Finishing plays and turning these pressures into hits and sacks, however, have certainly been a problem for Lowry. What has not been a problem for Lowry is stopping the run. In 2015, He recorded 28 solo tackles on run plays and missed just two tackles all season. His run stop percentage of 9.7 percent led all 4-3 defensive ends in the Big Ten and he will be much needed against Tennessee’s rushing attack.
With the way they have been playing this season, Jackson would need to have a very strong game at running back for the Northwestern offense to be a factor. As a result, I expect Tennessee’s running back duo of Kamara and Hurd to run away with this game.
Tennessee 21, Northwestern 10