Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, December 20, 2015

Hard to believe 19 years have passed since Peyton Manning-yes, THAT Peyton Manning-led Tennessee to a 48-28 vs. Northwestern in a New Year?s Day Bowl in Florida. Pat Fitzgerald couldn?t stop Manning on that day in the Citrus Bowl as a BMOC linebacker for the Wildcats. No shame in that.

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Now, Fitz has another crack at the Volunteers-this time as one of the Big Ten?s top coaches. That 1996 NU squad was led by a star running back in Darnell Autry. This NU squad is led by a star running back in Justin Jackson. No, Tennessee has no QB like Manning on its 2015 club. But UT still is a rising program under Butch Jones built around a strong defense and ground game-just like 2015 NU.

UT arrives in Tampa hot, winners of five in a row. Is this the next power team in the SEC East? The Vols thumped Iowa last year in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Northwestern wants to end a breakout 10-win season with a program-defining 11th triumph, which would be a big feat and turnaround for a squad that went 5-7 each of the last two seasons.

Player on the spot:
RB Justin Jackson. As he goes in the Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee, so goes the Wildcat offense. This fall, he finished second in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,344 yards, rushing a Big Ten-high 298 times. And Jackson did all of this with little support from a passing attack that is last in the Big Ten (139.3 ypg). But running room could be difficult to come by if QB Clayton Thorson can?t hit some passes down field. No doubt, UT will stuff the box to thwart Jackson and force Thorson to hit some passes. Can he?

Best individual matchup: Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs vs. Northwestern LB Anthony Walker. Dobbs is a dynamic playmaker who can make things happen with his athletic ability. Running the ball is his strong suit, but he isn?t afraid to chuck it down field. He was banged up most of the second half of the season but should be good to go vs. NU with time off. Dobbs benefits from a strong running attack, using the 1-2 punch of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Dobbs is pretty good with the ball in his hands, too. But the Wildcats have a strong front seven that won?t bend easily for a defense that is seventh in the nation in scoring (16.4 ppg). Walker is a future NFL player who led Northwestern with 113 tackles and 19.5 TFLs. He is the best player on an outstanding NU defense that stuffed Pac-12 champ Stanford, 16-6, to start the season.

Best unit matchup: Northwestern offensive line vs. Tennessee defensive line. The Vol defense came to life down the stretch with a blitzing style that took pressure off the secondary. A big key has been E Derek Barnett, who was a terror down the stretch in notching seven sacks in the last six games. And LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a dynamo who paced the team in tackles and tackles for loss.

Key number: 39.4. That?s the percentage of times Northwestern?s scores TDs when it is in the red zone. And it is the worst in the Big Ten for a NU team that is last in the Big Ten in scoring (20.7 ppg). That must improve. There probably is little chance the Wildcats topple the Volunteers by settling for field goals in the red zone.


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