In a different dimension, somewhat adrift in the void of time and space, there sits a world where a matchup between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Nebraska Cornhuskers is important. The bright - if not nauseating - Tennessee Orange against the Husker Red would be one that underscores the history and import of each school. The only thing more impressive than the teams themselves would be the pride each fan held in his or her heart when they consider how amazing their respective school is.
This is not the world we live in.
In the final week of the season, both Nebraska and Tennessee had an opportunity to spend some time in Florida. Instead, losses to Iowa and Vanderbilt doomed both schools to spending Christmas in Nashville. While I can think of a few places that are worse than the Music City, I can think of just as many destinations I would rather have ended up in. The question, then, is this: Who wants to be here? Will the hometown team have the upper hand? Does Nebraska have an uninjured skill player? Can Tennessee’s defense stop anyone? Did the Nebraska Cornhuskers beat the Indiana Hoosiers in basketball - wait, that was actually in this world?
Let’s dive into the matchup and see if we can’t answer those questions and more.
Seriously, how did these teams get here?
For the Cornhuskers, this was actually something of a bounceback. The 2015 season ended on a high note, but 6-7 are far from what dreams are made of. Despite so many close calls, fans were rightfully on edge after the grudging consistency of the Pelini era. Mike Riley quieted some of the concerns about his coaching by bringing the Cornhuskers to 9-3. The downside? Nebraska was most definitely 7-0 and looking for far more than a trip to Nashville. The late season letdown - starting with a close overtime loss against Wisconsin - culminated in an embarrassing beatdown in Iowa City by what can only be described as an underachieving Iowa Hawkeye group who outplayed Nebraska in every facet of the game. To say Nebraska limps into the bowl is an understatement.
On the other side of the field stand the Volunteers. This was a team with promise, and you have to admit that it was hard not to get sucked into the Butch Jones hype machine. To put it another way, Tennessee returned a talented offense led by QB Joshua Dobbs, started the season 5-0 with wins over the rival Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators, and had more than enough talent on both sides of the balls to make noise. Similar to Nebraska, things went downhill from there. They would go 3-4 to finish the season highlighted by disappointing losses to the Texas A&M Aggies, Alabama Crimson Tide, South Carolina Gamecocks, and eventually even the Vanderbilt Commodores. The latter of those losses made you wonder if this team had maybe started looking towards 2017.
To say that these teams sort of fell into this game is probably an understatement, but here we are and despite some potential home cooking out of Tennessee, I’d say that this matchup is probably one between two teams that played out similar arcs this season. Will that matter? It’s hard to say.
What do these teams do well?
If you’re Tennessee, you offense well. I’m not 100% sure offense is a verb, but with Dobbs under center and guys like WR Josh Malone - 10 TDs, 885 yards - and WR Jauan Jennings - 7 TDs, 521 yards, you can imagine that things are going well in Knoxville. Nationally, the Volunteers are 49th in total offense and 24th in scoring offense. It’s a good offense that is boosted by the benefit of being closer to home and having time to figure out how to attack Nebraska’s suspect defense.
So how about Nebraska? It’s actually the defense. Would you believe that the Cornhuskers have the 24th best defense by total yards? How about the part where it has the 29th best scoring defense? While the offense has left something to be desired as of late, the defense has kept Nebraska in games they probably shouldn’t be in. What’s terrifying is that the Iowa game happened and who knows what this team has left in the tank.
What do they do terrible?
Besides disappointing their fan’s arguably unrealistic expectations? Well, Tennessee cannot stop the run to save their lives. They boast the 110th ranked run defense in the nation allowing a massive 231.7 yards per game. Nebraska’s RB committee led by Terrell Newby should get theirs in a game where the passing game will almost literally be non-existent.
Nebraska was really good at rushing defense, but Iowa and Ohio State both burned them on the ground. Dobbs, and RB Alvin Kamara, should be able to do some damage. Oh, and Nebraska’s offense without pretty much their two best players will be something interesting to watch.
So what should we be expecting?
Most likely? Probably a Tennessee win. Nebraska will most likely be without Sr. QB Tommy Armstrong and LB Marcus Newby, will for sure be without WR Jordan Westerkamp, and might be without RB Tre Bryant. Oh, and let’s not forget the part when Senior Captain Nate Gerry decided he would more or less become complacent in the classroom resulting in suspension before his final game.
While Tennessee has had its fair share of injuries - and that hill Jalen Hurd thing - this season, the Volunteers do not have quite the same sudden addition of issues late in the season. That in mind, even before we started this conversation, my expectation was that Tennessee has an edge in talent here anyways.
Add in the element of familiarity with the location and you have a really difficult task at hand for Nebraska. Sr. QB - and professional panic button - Ryker Fyfe will be stepping into the starting role (despite nursing an offhand injury himself) and hoping to give Nebraska one last ride, but I do not feel good about this game in the least
Cool, tell me the details and let’s get on with it.
The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
Time: December 30th at 2:30 PM CST
Line: Tennessee, -3.5
Tennesse 31 - 24 Nebraska