Tennessee needs Outback Bowl win to validate 2015 season
It’s not often that a team entering its bowl game on a dominating five-game winning streak finds itself needing a postseason victory to validate its season.
Meet the 2015 Tennessee Volunteers.
Butch Jones’ squad will arrive in Tampa for its Jan. 1 Outback Bowl matchup against Northwestern with an 8-4 (5-3 in the SEC) record and the aforementioned consecutive string of five wins. But, despite the strong finish, the Volunteers’ season will very much be determined on how they can close it — a feat that’s proved difficult at times this year for the Vols.
Tennessee’s 2015 season is very much a tale of two halves. The first half (first seven games, really) was a tumultuous roller-coaster ride that saw the Volunteers fail to put away teams, with several late-game collapses en route to a 3-4 start. But the final five games, however, have seen Tennessee quietly go undefeated, winning by an average of 18.8 points per game.
In Tennessee’s Jan. 1 bowl tilt with Northwestern, we will find out the Vols’ true identity, as either a team that finally learned to close out an opponent or a squad that got fat down the stretch thanks to a slate of inferior patsies.
The Volunteers’ first seven games came against squads with a combined 66-21 record this year, none with a winning percentage below .583 percent and four of them walking away with conference or division championships (Alabama, Bowling Green, Florida and Oklahoma). Conversely, Tennessee’s final five opponents finished 18-42 during the 2015 campaign with none of them qualifying for a bowl game.
Northwestern aligns with the first seven teams that Tennessee faced — among the nation’s best, that is. The Wildcats finished (10-2, 6-2 in the Big Ten), second to only Iowa in the Big Ten West. And while the Vols are favored to win the game by roughly a touchdown, No. 12 Northwestern isn’t the traditional push-over Wildcats of 2013 and 2014 that won as many games during those years combined as they did this year.
Northwestern ranks No. 11 in total defense and are particularly tough against the run. They have the task of facing a Volunteer program that ranked second in the SEC when it came to running the ball.
It was that rushing attack (223.5 YPG) that allowed Tennessee to compete in literally every game this year. Jones’ program lost four games by a combined 17 points, and none by more than a touchdown. Two of those losses came to College Football Playoff teams Alabama (lost by five points) and Oklahoma (a seven-point loss). If the Volunteers get a different bounce, or make a play or get a call in their favor, it’s feasible that they hold on to beat Alabama, Oklahoma and/or Florida and enter themselves into the SEC title picture, if not the College Football Playoff mix.
But titles aren’t decided by “what-ifs.” The five straight wins over the likes of North Texas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt helped quell any panic in Knoxville, but a loss to Northwestern can poke the beehive.
A win over the Wildcats, however, not only improves Jones’ record in his third season at the helm by another two wins for a second straight season (five wins in 2013, seven wins in 2014), it validates Tennessee’s maturation as a program that it can compete with the best. It certainly helps with momentum heading into next season and provides Jones and nice little recruiting chip to use.
Perhaps, then, the old adage on Rocky Top that “next year is our year” might finally ring true.