TAMPA – Whether it was a late night, early kickoff, good defense or some combination, Tennessee stumbled through its first three Outback Bowl drives before emphatically reminding everybody why the Volunteers are the popular pick to rule the SEC East in 2016.

Odd thing, though. It took a major contribution from a surprising source before the old reliables put the finishing touches on a convincing 45-6 victory over Northwestern at Raymond James Stadium, which looked and sounded much like a Knoxville suburb Friday.

The Volunteers gained just 19 yards on those first three drives – a total they more than doubled in personal foul penalty yards.

They wasted an interception deep in Northwestern’s territory, losing 9 yards after starting first-and-10 at the 22, the result of which led to a field goal attempt that clanked off the goal post.

Fitting, for a clunker of a first quarter.

But one well-designed play washed away those football sins,  a seam route to a secret weapon.

Joshua Dobbs, 3-for-5 for just 9 yards to that point, hit seldom-used, oft-injured tight end Alex Ellis for a momentum-changing 42 yards.

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Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.

It was an unexpected jolt on several fronts. It came against a Wildcats defense that had allowed just three plays longer than 40 yards all season.

It went to Ellis, a senior and former walk-on, who entered the bowl game with just five catches and 43 yards this season. Northwestern certainly defended him like someone who wouldn’t get the ball, leaving him wide open in the middle of the field. Dobbs later found Alvin Kamara for 16 yards, which helped set up the junior quarterback’s 14-yard touchdown run on a designed QB draw.

After Northwestern pulled within 10-6 – yes an actual Big Ten touchdown against an SEC team – Dobbs went back to Ellis on another seam route. That one went for 22 yards and set up the Vols’ second touchdown.

The 17-point first half, while not explosive, was notable because it exceeded what Northwestern’s stingy defense allowed per game this season.

Tennessee’s defense and Jalen Hurd did the rest to ensure the Vols won bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since Peyton Manning and Co. captured three straight from 1994-96.

Derek Barnett and Darrin Kirkland Jr. each had a sack in the first half. UT opened the second half with consecutive sacks to end Northwesthern’s first drive. It added a second interception to end another.

With a big lead, Tennessee leaned on Hurd the rest of the afternoon.

They repeatedly fed their 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore from the I and Pistol formations en route to a 130-yard performance. He became the first Tennessee player to run for 100 yards in multiple bowl games, doing so in typical Hurd fashion by breaking multiple tackles at the line before sprinting 24 yards for a first down.

It wasn’t quite Derrick Henry finishing off Auburn or Florida, but the Vols handed it to Hurd seven times during an eight-play stretch, which he capped with a walk-in touchdown from 3 yards.

Consider it a not-so-subtle 240-pound hint of what’s to come next fall, reinforced by a fourth-quarter reminder from Dobbs, who raced 18 yards around the edge for his second touchdown as “Rocky Top” again rang down from the stands.

They were finishing touches from Tennessee’s dynamic duo, who showed again why the Vols are the SEC East’s team to beat next season.

And that, more so than anything else that happened Friday, was precisely the message Tennessee wanted to deliver. It just took the Vols a bit longer than expected to hit the “send” button.