Twin narratives have run through these last few weeks. #23 Tennessee is 8-4, the only team in the nation to play two playoff teams, and comes answering questions about what could have been. #13 Northwestern is 10-2, one of the biggest underdogs this bowl season, and comes answering questions about why what was wasn't as good to the rest of the football world. The Vols might be the proverbial best eight-win team in America, Northwestern the least respected ten-win team. Tennessee believes it is better than its record, Northwestern its perception.
Only one gets to be right, of course. But more than being right (which I know either fan base would enjoy), the winner tomorrow gets to have their season remembered for what they did. The loser, to a degree, gets to have their season remembered for what they did not do.
This is definitely true for Tennessee. It's a common problem when you find yourself in the Outback Bowl, which in the SEC means you had a good but not great year. The last time we were here in 2007, it was a common question even as the SEC East champs: Do you want to be the team with ten wins or the team with five losses? Only nine wins are on the table for Team 119, but the weight of the question remains the same.
We have lamented Tennessee's schedule for having no opportunities for meaningful wins in the last five games. Northwestern has had the misfortune of their biggest win coming in the season opener, which will seem even further away if they fail to cash in another big win over the Vols. The Wildcats will still have a memorable season should they fall to the Vols, but the difference between 10-3 with questions about their ability to compete with the nation's most talented teams and 11-2 with a likely Top 10 finish and another feather in their cap in the program's biggest game in more than two years is significant.
For Tennessee, a win in Tampa would cement championship expectations for the future. But in the present, for this team and for Butch Jones, Friday's outcome will help dictate the conversation on the now. Beat Northwestern and Jones will have his third ranked win as Tennessee's coach and a second Top 15 win. The Vols (or Wildcats) will have won their sixth game in a row, a distinction only the national champion, the Outback Bowl winner, and Oregon (if they beat TCU) will carry among power conference teams into 2016. Momentum will reign, and Team 119's role as the bridge between Tennessee's troubled past and bright future will be secure.
Lose, and the Vols will be remembered for what could have been. Win, and the Vols will be remembered for what they were and what they gave the program a chance to be. For a team that stayed together, rallied, and took themselves to Tampa for this opportunity? They deserve to be remembered for what they did. Here's hoping for another powerful closing statement in Florida in January.