Football: A quick look at Tennessee, Northwestern’s opponent in the Outback Bowl


Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Clayton Thorson scans the field before a snap. The redshirt freshman quarterback could have his hands full with a dominant Tennessee pass rush.

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor

Tennessee is far from being the class of the SEC or a national powerhouse — much like it was in the 1996 season when the Volunteers and Wildcats last met — but despite an 8-4 (5-3 SEC) record, Tennessee still poses a serious threat to Northwestern’s chances in the Outback Bowl.

The Volunteers started the 2015 season ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll, amid plenty of hype for third-year coach Butch Jones and junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs. But, the team never quite lived up to expectations through the halfway point of the schedule. A five-game win streak to end the season, however, vaulted Tennessee into the No. 23 spot of the final College Football Playoff rankings, though the Volunteers are still outside the top 25 in both the AP and Coaches polls.

Schedule and Results

Date Opponent Result
September 5 Bowling Green W 59-30
September 12 Oklahoma L 31-24 (OT)
September 19 Western Carolina W 55-10
September 26 at Florida L 28-27
October 3 Arkansas L 24-20
October 10 Georgia W 38-31
October 24 at Alabama L 19-14
October 31 at Kentucky W 52-21
November 7 South Carolina W 27-24
November 14 North Texas W 24-0
November 21 at Missouri W 19-8
November 28 Vanderbilt W 53-28


Looking at Tennessee’s 12-game slate, it’s very evident that the season-ending win streak is a result of scheduling and not a sign of actual improvement. The Volunteers plowed through the bottom of the SEC East — Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt combined to go 17-31 this year — and one of the worst teams in the FBS in North Texas.

Their best win came at home against Georgia, a 9-3 team that also played a fairly weak schedule. The only redeeming thing to say about Tennessee’s schedule is that three of its four losses were close games against clearly superior teams.

In an early-season showcase on Sept. 12, Tennessee took eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma to overtime before falling 31-24. Losing by 1 point on the road to the Will Grier-led Florida Gators looks pretty good, as does losing 19-14 on the road against Alabama. Even a 24-20 home loss to 7-5 Arkansas isn’t so bad.

Statistical Profile

S&P+ rank S&P+ off. rank S&P+ def. rank Strength of schedule rank Second-order wins
24 40 25 47 8.0


Points per game Rushing yards per game Passing yards per game Points allowed per game Yards allowed per game
34.3 223.5 199 21.2 370.4


The Volunteers finished No. 24 in Football Outsiders’ S&P+, a metric that measures the play-by-play efficiency of a team, which was well ahead of the Cats’ No. 45 ranking. In second-order wins, a figure that approximates how many games a team should have won based on its play-by-play performance, Tennessee has 8.0 to NU’s 7.2.

Traditional stats give a good idea of what to expect from Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. Like the Cats, the Volunteers run the ball much better than they throw on offense, and Tennessee also possesses a tough defense that yielded just 21.2 points per game this year.

Players to Watch

Joshua Dobbs, quarterback — The Tennessee offense hinges on the play of Dobbs both in the running and passing games. Dobbs was fairly average as a passer this season, completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,125 yards and tossing 15 touchdowns to five interceptions. Dobbs, however, took on a hefty workload in the running game, carrying 134 times for 623 yards. The threat of Dobbs opens up space for running back Jalen Hurd, who rushed 253 times for 1,158 yards as Tennessee’s feature back, and the NU defense will be tasked with constantly keeping track of both.

Derek Barnett, defensive end — Barnett tallied nine sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2015 to bring his career totals to 19 and 32, respectively, which are staggering figures for a true sophomore. NU’s offense line underwhelmed for much of this season and redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson often gets rattled under pressure. If the Cats can’t keep Barnett out of the backfield, it could turn into a long, punt-filled day for the offense.

Check back for full coverage of Northwestern football leading up to the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 in Tampa, Florida.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote