Northwestern Wildcats vs. Tennessee Volunteers, Friday Jan. 1, Noon ET
Even knowing that the Outback Bowl is an SEC-Big Ten contest when possible, you would have had to give me about 80 guesses before the season before I came up with this matchup. I expected very little from both teams, yet they won 18 games between them, and both did some very good things. Both come into this game off a five-game winning streak - Northwestern's is somewhat more impressive because they were underdogs three times, while Tennessee merely took care of business against outmatched opponents. Northwestern gets extra credit because the five wins came after they were humiliated by Michigan and Iowa in consecutive games - crushing setbacks that would have been reason for lesser teams to quit. All in all, it's a matchup I would never have predicted but one I am surprisingly optimistic about.
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Outback Bowl Betting Storylines
There is definitely a difference in approaches here. Tennessee is quite a balanced team - neither their offense nor their defense is particularly strong, but as a package it was good enough to win more than they lost. Northwestern, on the other hand, is the furthest thing from balanced. They rank an impressive seventh in the nation in points allowed - and that's despite the two blowout losses we talked about earlier - and just 112th in points scored. They look to grind their opponents into submission. The blueprint of a Northwestern ideal game this year is their season opening win against Stanford - a 16-6 victory in which the Cardinal just look miserable from start to finish. Their 13-7 win at Wisconsin in November was similar, too. They know they can't do much offensively with any consistency, so they do all they can make sure their opponent can do even less.
My favorite thing about bowl games is when we get to see the strength of one team perfectly aligned with the strength of another. Both teams can't have their ideal in these cases, and the one that does is going to win. It's drama of the highest order. That's just what we have here. What Tennessee does best is run the ball - they are Top 20 nationally in yards on the ground. Northwestern's defensive strength is against the run - they are 12th in the country in yards allowed. This is quite possibly the matchup that will determine the game.
If it isn't the running game that determines the winner then it will be special teams. The Volunteers are downright frightening in the return game. They returned three punts and three kickoffs for scores. The star is Evan Berry, who scored three times and led the country with an impressive 38.3 yards per return. Northwestern has had some issues defending kick returns this year. If they haven't worked out those issues in this one then it could really haunt them. You can be sure that they have been practicing this area extensively in bowl practices.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald will be comfortable in the role of an underdog in a bowl game - at least from a betting perspective. He has a dismal 1-4 straight up record in bowl games, but a much more impressive 4-1 record ATS. He loses often, but not as badly as people seem to expect.
Outback Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Tennessee favored by nine points. That fell to 8.5, and now eight is available in several spots. A decent majority of bets have been on Northwestern, so the line movement is as expected. The total sits at 47.5.
The Wildcats are 4-1 ATS both in their last five bowl games and their last five nonconference games. They are 5-2 ATS in their last seven neutral-site games. The Volunteers are 5-2 ATS in their last seven games overall but a dismal 6-17-1 ATS in their last 24 games following an ATS win.
Northwestern vs. Tennessee Outback Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
Maybe it's because I watched more of Northwestern than Tennessee this year, or maybe it's because I don't drink the SEC kool-aid, but I am not nearly as in love with the Volunteers as bettors and oddsmakers seem to be. They lost to the four best teams they faced this year and don't have a win that counts as particularly impressive - nothing close to Northwestern's wins over Stanford and at Wisconsin, for example. They don't do enough particularly well, and I don't expect them to really shine on the ground against a solid Northwestern defense. I actually think the Wildcats have a good shot at winning outright. At the very least they can keep this one close. Northwestern is the comfortable pick in this one. Actually, in relative terms I think this price is a bit of a gift.
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