Northwestern-Tennessee Preview

December 31, 2015

Pat Fitzgerald won his second straight Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards as the nation's defensive player of the year in 1996 before Northwestern lost to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl in his final collegiate game.

The Wildcats didn't match that nine-win season again until Fitzgerald took over as coach in 2006, part of a string of coaching accomplishments that includes Northwestern's only bowl victory since 1949.

Fittingly, the Wildcats' defense is a major reason Fitzgerald can become the first coach in school history to win 11 games, a mark he can set Friday in the Outback Bowl in Northwestern's first meeting with the Volunteers since Fitzgerald last wore the uniform.

Fitzgerald's passion for Northwestern football in part earned him the head job as a 31-year-old following the unexpected death of coach Randy Walker after the 2005 season. He often concludes interviews by saying "Go Cats!" and is one of the most animated coaches in the country on the sidelines.

He guided Northwestern to its first postseason victory in 63 years by beating Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl after the 2012 campaign to match the school record of 10 wins, but the 12th-ranked Wildcats haven't been back to a bowl until this season.

They finished 10-2 and 6-2 in the Big Ten and ranked 11th in the nation in total defense, allowing 310.5 yards per game. Northwestern held seven opponents to fewer than 100 on the ground.

It had a pair of shutouts and limited two more opponents to fewer than eight points, including wins over now-No. 5 Stanford and then-No. 21 Wisconsin.

"We've worked so hard all season to get to this point," cornerback Matthew Harris said. "We're really embracing going out on the field with each other just because it's been such a great season for us.

"To be the first team to win 11 games, it's something about just leaving a legacy. It's something this program has never done before."

Fitzgerald hopes for a better result than the last time Northwestern faced Tennessee, when Peyton Manning carved up the Wildcats for 408 yards and four touchdown passes in the Volunteers' 48-28 victory 19 years ago.

Tennessee won the national championship two years later, but it eventually went through some difficult seasons like Northwestern and has gone through multiple coaches to find a solution.

Butch Jones has improved the Volunteers (8-4) in each of his three seasons and has them in a bowl game for the second straight year after guiding the program to its most victories since going 10-4 in 2007.

Tennessee beat Iowa in last year's TaxSlayer Bowl in its first postseason game since 2010.

"I think we have accomplished a lot," Jones said. "The players have come each and every day. They have had a high level of intensity. We've seen that and every practice has been with competitiveness, but also attention to details.

"Now it's being able to go down to the bowl site, put all of your focus, your energy and your preparation down there and be ready to go."

Both teams enter riding five-game winning streaks, with Tennessee overcoming a rough start. The Vols lost four of their first seven - all by seven points or fewer - and led now-No. 2 Alabama in the fourth quarter before allowing a late touchdown.

Joshua Dobbs has excelled in his first full season as a starter, throwing 15 touchdown passes and running for nine more. He also caught a TD pass.

"I think that the experiences that he has gained over time has helped in the maturation process as a leader, as a quarterback," Jones said. "This year, he has continued to progress and get better and better. He defines what a student-athlete is all about."

The Vols finished second in the SEC with 223.5 rushing yards per game, as Jalen Hurd had 1,158 and 11 touchdowns. Alvin Kamara averaged 6.7 yards per rush and scored six times.

"They have two spectacular backs. They're really powerful, real explosive," Harris said. "Their quarterback makes plays, so it's going to be a really tough challenge."

Northwestern also relies heavily on the run, with freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson rushing for five touchdowns and throwing for fewer than 100 yards four times. Justin Jackson led the Big Ten with 298 rushing attempts and finished second with 1,344 yards.

"I feel like we got a lot accomplished and really installed our game plan for how we want to play Northwestern," Tennessee freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland said. "We've really studied them and their personnel does a really good job. We are looking forward to playing them in Tampa."

This will be the last game at Tennessee for tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder, who has accepted the coaching job at Eastern Kentucky.