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Tennessee vs Northwestern in the Outback Bowl

The Vols get January 1 and a Top 15 opponent in their first trip to Tampa since 2007.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The majority projection came true this time:  Tennessee and Northwestern are headed to Tampa on January 1.  ESPN's Brett McMurphy was the first to report.

It's a strong endorsement and opportunity for the Vols, who climbed up to #23 in the final College Football Playoff Top 25.  We find Northwestern at #13 there, making the Wildcats the only ranked opponent for a SEC group of six team.  In a season marked by close calls, Tennessee will get a chance for its biggest win on paper with Georgia sitting just outside the AP Top 25 and 25th in the coaches' poll.

The October win over the Dawgs was transformational for Tennessee's season, and a win over Northwestern would serve as a bridge to the future.  It won't come easily:  the 10-2 Wildcats are seventh nationally in yards per play allowed, meaning the Vols will have faced half of the Top 12 defenses in the country by that stat this year.  And both teams will come to Tampa riding five game winning streaks, two of just six power conference teams to have earned that distinction (Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Oregon).  It will be the first meeting between the Vols and Wildcats since Peyton Manning and the Vols torched Northwestern 48-28 in the Citrus Bowl following the 1996 season.

For UT's season, which has been defined by the satisfaction of progress and the heartbreak of even greater progress left on the table, the Outback Bowl is a nice reward.  It connects UT to the past:  Tennessee last appeared in Tampa at the close of the 2007 season, the last good year in Knoxville before the one the Vols have a chance to put the finishing touches on here.  And, if I'm Butch Jones, I might point out to my players the way it can connect the Vols to the future.  After watching Alabama and Oklahoma earn bids to the College Football Playoff this year, two teams the Vols led in the fourth quarter, it's worth noting for a young, eager, and capable Tennessee team that next season's National Championship Game will also be played in Tampa, Florida.

If we'd like to dream that dream, we'll need to go through Northwestern to connect the dots.  For the first nine win season since 2007, for a mark of validation for Team 119, and for the hope of what Team 120 can be, Tennessee faces a great opportunity against a Top 15 Northwestern team.

Plenty more to come on this match-up over the next three-plus weeks.  For more on the Wildcats, check out SB Nation's Inside NU.