Music City Bowl preview: Nebraska, Tennessee to rekindle bowl rivarly
This is an intriguing clash between big-time programs trying to become national powers again. And there is a bit of familiarity, as this will mark the third-ever matchup between Nebraska and Tennessee, which have all been in bowl games. The Huskers defeated the Vols and Peyton Manning in the Orange Bowl following the 1997 season to clinch a share of the national championship with Michigan. That was Tom Osborne’s last game as Cornhusker coach. Two seasons later, Nebraska defeated Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl to close a 12-1 season.
The teams have something else in common: a fast start in 2016 followed by a slow finish. Nebraska jetted out of the gates with a 7-0 mark with dreams of a Big Ten West title before going 2-3 down the stretch, as the program still hasn’t won a league title since 1999. Still, Year Two under Mike Riley was promising after a 6-7 debut.
Tennessee has been one of the most disappointing teams in the nation, turning up the heat on Butch Jones. Many felt the Vols would be the class of the SEC East, as UT started 5-0 but flopped down the stretch with losses to the likes of South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Not gonna make you real popular in Knoxville. A poor defense was at the root of the Volunteers’ issues, as UT ranked 109th in the nation in total defense (460.2 ypg). Other issues: The Vols have started seven different offensive line combinations and 10 different secondary combinations due to injuries.
This will be Nebraska’s first trip to the Music City Bowl and its second bowl junket in Tennessee, as it beat North Carolina in the 1977 Liberty Bowl (Go, I.M. Hipp!). The Music City Bowl is Nebraska’s 53rd all-time bowl appearance, tying for the second-most bowl appearances of any school.
More bowl goodness: Nebraska has appeared in a bowl game in 46 of the past 48 seasons, and the Music City Bowl will mark the 16th bowl in which Nebraska has participated. Mike Riley is 7-2 in bowls. In an interesting twist, Nebraska and Tennessee were originally scheduled to play in 2016 and 2017, but the games were rescheduled for 2026 and 2027. Oregon ultimately took the place on Nebraska’s schedule left by Tennessee.
Nebraska (9-3) vs. Tennessee (8-4): 3:30 p.m. ET, Dec. 30, Nashville, Tennessee
Player on the spot: Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong or Ryker Fyfe. The former may not be able to play due to a lingering hamstring injury, but his presence would give Nebraska a huge lift. The dynamic playmaker has thrown for 2,180 yards and racked up 512 yards rushing in his final campaign. If Armstrong can go and is able to make some plays with his arm and legs, the Huskers have the ability to score with the Volunteers. If Armstrong can’t go, it will be up to Fyfe to manage the game and lean on Nebraska’s rushing attack.
Best individual matchup: Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs vs. Nebraska LB Josh Banderas. The Vols feature a high-powered offensive attack, averaging 36.2 points and 437.2 yards per game. Credit Dobbs. He leads the SEC in touchdown passes (26) and points responsible for (216). Banderas is the Huskers’ top linebacker and must keep tabs on Dobbs, who can beat foes with his feet and arm. He’s a lot like Tommy Armstrong.
Best unit matchup: Tennessee defensive line vs. Nebraska offensive line. Football is won in the trenches. And this is a big clash. If the Cornhuskers are able to run the ball with the likes of RB Terrell Newby, who has 864 yards rushing, they will have a good chance to win. And Nick Gates is a key blocker for the Huskers who must help contain Vols DE Derek Barnett, who has 12 sacks in 2016 and 32 in his career, which ties the school record held by Reggie White.
Number: 4, regular-season win improvement over 2015 for Nebraska, the program’s biggest increase in regular-season wins since 1962.
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