Ring in the New Year with the first college football game of 2016, the Outback Bowl, and it should be one of the best games of bowl season as the defensive minded Northwestern Wildcats take on the offensive minded Tennessee Volunteers.
It was 19 years ago, New Year’s Day 1997, when UT and Northwestern last met. It was the Florida Citrus Bowl, and Peyton Manning was the quarterback with Pat Fitzgerald the tenacious linebacker chasing him. Tennessee won decisively that sunny day. Today, Peyton languishes in Denver at the end of his hall-of-fame NFL career while Fitzgerald channels that same tenacity on a daily basis as Northwestern’s coach, and pumps spirit into his players.
Northwestern has surprised all season, from an opening week win over eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford, to their five-game winning streak to end the season the same way they began it. After dropping consecutive games by a combined 78-10, the ‘Cats were given up on—given up on by everyone but Fitzgerald. Now they are a heavy underdog in the Outback Bowl against a Tennessee team that has hit its stride.
Butch Jones has restored the bedrock principles to Tennessee Football that built the Volunteers into a blue blood program, and during that time the Vols were always dominant at the end of the season. A five-game winning streak of their own propels the Volunteers into this game, rolling Vandy in their finale.
As exciting a season as it has been, Volunteer faithful will mention the pain of being so close to so much more, including: a double-overtime loss to playoff participant Oklahoma after leading 17-0; blowing a 27-14 lead in the last five minutes to lose 28-27 at The Swamp; squandering a 14-0 lead at home in a loss to Arkansas where they could muster little offensively when it counted; and allowing a late touchdown to lose to Alabama, a game they controlled in large measure late. Those factors separate UT from a special year, but it is these lessons they plan to make pay off in 2016. In many ways, the 2016 season starts with this game as most key performers return in September.
Northwestern has never won 11 games in a season, last having the chance 20 years ago when their magical run to the Rose Bowl ended with a defeat to Keyshawn Johnson and USC. The last time Tennessee won back-to-back bowl games was ironically in 1996 and 1997, capped by a win over Northwestern. As he has been all season, Dobbs is the key. He will see looks only comparable to what Alabama threw at him, and it was a struggle that day. UT seems to be too athletic for the Wildcats to keep up, but if they do not match the toughness of Northwestern, history will belong to the team in purple, not orange.