Will Shelton - Darrin Kirkland Jr.
What's most important for Tennessee in this game is to leave it feeling better about its defense, and not because Derek Barnett got his sack or Cam Sutton got one last pick. In that spirit I'm taking Kirkland here, who clearly returned before he was 100% and was last seen playing only in the nickel package against Vanderbilt. He can help slow down a depleted Nebraska offense and, to me, is still the returning defensive Vol with the most upside who will actually suit up for the MCB.
Justin Phillips - Jonathan Kongbo
Like Will, I'm staying on the defensive side of the ball. You could make a case that Jonathan Kongbo is playing his most important game as a Vol. The defensive front is decimated, and Kongbo should look to close out 2016 with an eye on the 2017 season. Whether he ultimately ends up at defensive end or tackle, Kongo is a crucial part of the Volunteer defense going forward, not simply given the injuries on the defensive line but considering his immense talent. It is time for the 5-star recruit to shake off the slow start to his football career and give the coaching staff a better picture of the player he will be heading into next season. And, oh yeah, Nebraska will be looking to run the ball on a porous Tennessee run defense. Kongbo can start cementing his place within Team 121 with a great finale in the Music City Bowl.
Incipient_Senescence -- Jauan Jennings
A team that was in the preseason top 10 and had designs on the Sugar Bowl going into the last week of the regular season is now in Nashville. Will the Vols play for pride, or will they sleepwalk through one more game and put 2016 in the rearview mirror? More often than not this season, when Tennessee has had a spark, it's come from Jauan Jennings. For the Vols to win, they'll need another one.
Volundore - Butch Jones
One of the constants of the Butch Jones tenure has been solid execution after long layoffs. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, we worried about frisky mid-majors in Week 1 or Week 2 (Western Kentucky, Utah State, Bowling Green); the Vols won by an average of 31 points. Coming off byes in those years, UT upset a top-10 South Carolina team, blew out Kentucky, and held a 4th quarter lead against the eventual national champions in Tuscaloosa. In the last 2 bowl games, the Vols won by average of 28.
So what went wrong in 2016? On opening night with a national audience, Tennessee floundered and was lucky to escape Appalachian State. After the bye, with the SEC East still on the line, the Vols laid an absolute egg in Columbia. Were those results a consequence of the Jalen Hurd situation, or is something more significant afoot? I think we can and should read into how the team looks on Friday as a potential window of insight into whether or not the players are still buying in to what Butch is selling.
Chris Pendley - Cam Sutton
One last time, y'all. One last time before somehow Sutton slips like two rounds in the draft because his 40 time was 4.51 instead of 4.49 and he's actually 6'0.5" instead of his listed 6'1" and Anonymous National Football League Scout dings him because he said he'd only lose an arm for football instead of an arm and a leg.
One last time for Cam to wow hearts and minds and make us forget, even for a second, that nobody hires Willie Martinez to coach DBs even if he's listed as a DB coach. One last time to have some poor, overmatched QB forget he's out there and launch a pass that's just a bit too much of a duck only to look at the back of 7 as he goes down the sideline untouched.
Or heck, maybe nobody throws to his side of the field and Nebraska doesn't punt. Whatever. I'm kind of betting on if the team's done with the year, everyone's gonna be out to get his so jump those routes, man. Be a hero.
Trey - The Smoking Wreckage of the Interior D Line
Everybody else has good picks (and Cam feels like the spiritually correct answer). But with Tommy Armstrong looking increasingly unlikely to make an appearance and Nebraska's primary receiver out for the season, the algebra here for just plain winning gets riiiillll simple: if Terrell Newby can run like Ralph Webb (or like Stanley Williams. Or Rico Dowdle. Or-) it's going to be another (another!) long night in Nashville. While the frankly absurd injury situation is a reasonable excuse for the struggles with interior runs, Bob Shoop has so far appeared incapable of even staunching the bleeding (and NC State completely suffocating the Vandy ground juggernaut Monday isn't particularly reassuring). Maybe with a couple off weeks he'll figure it out.
But being honest, a lot of the time it feels like players under this staff are making dramatic, game-changing plays completely in spite of the scheme; Butch's best hope for avoiding a lame-duck 2017 might well be the defensive interior deciding it's their turn in the coach-transcendent, hair-on-fire play rotation.