Man is it nice to still be playing meaningful football when the calendar's about to turn. Northwestern provides the Vols with a terrific opportunity to make a statement against another very good team. I'm not sure it matters whether that statement is "Tennessee beat a highly-ranked team" or "Tennessee rolled in a good bowl game against a good team," but either of those can serve as a solid launchpad for a season to remember in 2016.
So what are the keys to being able to walk away from this one saying one of those two things?
Do what we do, Part I. One of the things this coaching staff has done well almost all season is rolling out of the gate to a score or two. It often seemed like the team would be unstoppable after their first two possessions. We know that sometimes that was the case and sometimes it wasn't even enough to get the win, but feeling good about the offense early is one of the chief characteristics of Team 119, and that is going to be extremely important against Northwestern, who has a great defense and a not-so-great offense. So if it's going to be difficult to move the ball and score, let's make the most of our best time and get points early.
Do what we do, Part II. If the Wildcats have a threat on offense, it's running the ball. Fortunately, we've seen good running teams before (oh, like Alabama) and held them to well below their average output. The Vols need to be stout there, and they should be able to do it with Northwestern not presenting much of a threat through the air.
Don't do what we've done too often, do what we did last year this time. This one is key to making the statement include the word "roll" instead of "win." Unfortunately, we've too often taken a strong start and let it slip away into a close game or a heartbreaking loss. If we're looking for reasons to believe that it's more about opponents getting their bearings than Tennessee's coaches intentionally deciding to put on the brakes and play things conservative, we need look no further than the TaxSlayer Bowl last year. Hopefully, everyone on the team is looking at this game as an opportunity to posture Team 120 for great things.
My prediction? Tennessee 24, Northwestern 17. But I think that if that's wrong, it's wrong in the Vols' favor, meaning I believe this will either be a close win for Tennessee or a statement-maker for the Big Orange.
Here's the comparison chart. Tennessee currently resides at 11th on the list of toughest schedules. Northwestern is 7th. If you're interested in advanced stats, you can find them here (Tennessee's | Northwestern's). They're giving Tennessee an 61% chance of winning.
|Result against Comps
|Tennessee rushing offense vs. Northwestern rushing defense
|Tennessee passing offense vs. Northwestern passing defense
|Tennessee rushing defense vs. Northwestern rushing offense
|Tennessee passing defense vs. Northwestern passing offense
|Tennessee scoring offense vs. Northwestern scoring defense
Tennessee scoring defense vs. Northwestern scoring offense