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Staff Picks: Vols vs Northwestern

Can the Vols get it done against a stout Northwestern defense in Tampa?

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Ages ago, the Rocky Top Talk staff picked the Tennessee/Vanderbilt game, with just two correctly projecting the Tennessee cover of the 17.5-point spread. Closest to the Pin is a tie between Will and Hunter, both of whom projected a 27-6 Vols win, just four points off of the final margin, albeit 48(!) points off the total. Both were edged in the comments by TennVol95 in 3D!, whose 31-13 projection was seven points off the margin and 37 off the total.

Tomorrow, the Vols are finally back in action, taking on #13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Will the Vols get it done? Let's get to the picks.

Incipient (9-3 straight up, 5-7 against the spread): We don't have many data points on how Butch Jones handles bowl games, but given his skill at game prep and the way he opened up the playbook last year against Iowa, I expect the offense to have one of their best games of the year. Of course, they're facing a quality defense, and unless the passing game clicks better than it did against the best defenses on the regular season slate, "one of the best games of the season" is not going to get the Vols anywhere close to their outputs against teams like Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. But with Northwestern's struggles on offense, it should be enough for a bit of separation. Tennessee 27 Northwestern 14.

Will (9-3 straight up, 6-6 against the spread): I do think Tennessee can win this one the Missouri way, making for an ugly new year.  But I also think the Vols will have a wrinkle or two for a good Wildcat defense, which will help Tennessee look a little better than they did against the Tigers.  I'm a little concerned about a 10-win Top 15 team who beat Stanford being told they're the biggest underdog of the bowl season, but have also never seen Butch not have the Vols in the right frame of mind for a game like this one.  The Wildcats will land a punch or two themselves, but I think Tennessee has enough doing their usual to stay in front and spark championship expectations for 2016. Tennessee 27 Northwestern 13.

Chris (10-2 straight up, 5-7 against the spread): First of all, congratulations on Northwestern's CFB Playoff run in 2016, since if we've learned anything from the Butch Jones tenure, it's "playing Tennessee in a bowl game means you're making a playoff run the following year". It's just science.

Of course, we also have learned that Tennessee can-wait, sorry, will-blow the doors off their opponent in the first half before letting up a bit. Since Northwestern's offense is somewhere around poor man's Missouri, let's assume they try and get back into the game but aren't entirely capable of it. Tennessee 27 Northwestern 12.

Hunter (8-4 straight up, 8-4 against the spread): Bowl games don't always behave as you'd expect, with seemingly bizarre outcomes occurring more often than not-- ie, TCU's complete demolition of an Ole Miss defense that had been excellent all year. So it's entirely possible that the Wildcats come out feeling disrespected, play like their hair is on fire, and take it to the Vols for a half. But that's unlikely for two reasons: 1) most unusual bowl game outcomes are due to mismatches in motivation (one team plays like it's the National Championship, the other team plays like it's a meaningless game in Detroit in December)-- and Butch has shown that he's a master at motivation; and, 2) Northwestern doesn't have the horses on offense to score more than 14-21 points in a half without Tennessee completely self-destructing.

Vols win, Purple More Successful Vandy loses. I'll take Pendley's recommendation for score: 27-11, but I'm betting it's closer to 35-10. Tennessee 27 Northwestern 11.

Joel (9-3 straight up, 6-6 against the spread): Hates fun. Tennessee 24 Northwestern 17.

Rocky Top Talk Staff Average (8-4 straight up, 5-7 against the spread): Tennessee 26 Northwestern 13.

Vegas (for reference): Tennessee -8.5. Over/under 47.5. Tennessee 28 Northwestern 20.