Outback Bowl: Northwestern vs. Tennessee game preview
Time: Friday, noon
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — No. 12 Northwestern and Tennessee are resilient teams that resist the temptation to look back on their seasons and wonder what might have been.
Instead, the Wildcats and Volunteers take five-game winning streaks into Friday’s Outback Bowl, proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish with strong stretch runs following mid-year skids that derailed prospects of playing for conference championships.
Northwestern (10-2) rebounded from lopsided losses to Michigan and Iowa in October to have a chance to finish with a school-record 11 victories. Tennessee (8-4) dropped four games by a combined 17 points during a 3-4 start that easily could have mushroomed into a long year for a young team facing one of the nation’s toughest schedules.
"A lot of times you can learn much more from losses," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, reflecting on self-described "gut-wrenching" losses to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama.
The Vols are the only team in the country that played two of the four teams that received berths in this year’s College Football Playoff. They lost to Oklahoma 31-24 in double overtime and fell to Alabama 19-14 on the road.
"Sometimes when you win, things are swept under the table, but it really comes down to character, the character you have in your football program, the competitive character that you have," Jones said. "A lot of times, particularly being in Knoxville, you can let the noises, the distractions creep in, and I was really proud of our players, the way they responded."
Similarly, Northwestern’s season could have turned for the worse following a 38-0 blowout at Michigan and 40-10 loss to Iowa at home in consecutive weeks. The Wildcats have climbed to new heights under coach Pat Fitzgerald, however 5-7 finishes the past two seasons came on the heels of a stretch in which the program appeared in a school-record five consecutive bowl games.
"When you look at the team, we said we’ve got to make a decision who we’re going to be," Fitzgerald said. "Are we going to be the team that started off 5-0 and beat a team (Stanford) that’s playing in the Rose Bowl, a team that just won a bowl game (Duke), or are we going to be a team that decided not to show up and play."
Northwestern reeled off victories over Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois to finish strong. Tennessee beat Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt down the stretch, averaging 35 points and winning by 18.8 points per game.
`"You’ve got to flush it. You’ve got to move on," Fitzgerald said. "You’ve just got to have a short memory, you’ve got to learn from the experiences, and you can’t duplicate it."
Some other things to know about Northwestern and Tennessee heading into the Outback bowl:
Northwestern has 10 wins for the fourth time in school history. The Wildcats have never won 11. Pat Fitzgerald has been a part of three of the double-digit win teams — as a player in 1995, and as head coach in 2012 and this season. It’s the program sixth bowl appearance under the 40-year-old Fitzgerald, 12th overall. Fitzgerald has been involved in 10 of those trips, including two times as a player and twice as an assistant coach.
ON THE RISE
Tennessee, in its third season under coach Butch Jones, has won eight games for the first time since 2007. The team’s five-game winning streak is also the Vols’ longest in eight years.
HE’S A WINNER: While Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson doesn’t have overly impressive statistics (1,465 yards passing, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions), he’s only the eighth freshman quarterback in the Football Bowl Subdivision since 2008 to lead his team to at least 10 victories. Northwestern is one of four teams that has started an underclassman at quarterback in every game and won at least 10. Clemson, Appalachian State and Florida are the others.
Tennessee is appearing in a bowl game for the 52nd time, tied for fourth all-time behind Alabama (63), Texas (52) and Nebraska (5-2). The Vols are 2-1 in previous trips to the Outback Bowl.
Northwestern has allowed five touchdown passes, fewest in the FBS this season. The Wildcats are 11th in the nation in total defense (30.5 yards per game) and seventh in scoring defense (16.4 per game). Tennessee dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs will test the unit. He’s 13-5 over his last 18 starts, and the Vols have averaged 424 yards and 33.6 points per game over that stretch.