Feature graphic courtesy of Lauren Anikis
Nebraska (9-3) vs. No. 21 Tennessee (8-4)
Where: Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee
When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST on ESPN
How they got here:
Nebraska was a fringe top-25 team heading into the 2016 season, but after two blowout wins at home against Fresno State and Wyoming and then beating AP No. 22 Oregon, the Cornhuskers found themselves ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll heading into Big Ten competition.
The Huskers didn’t slow down as they improved to a perfect 7-0 after wins against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. Going into Week 8, the Cornhuskers were ranked No. 10 in the AP Poll. However, Nebraska dropped three of its last five games to fall to No. 24 in the AP Poll and left off the College Football Playoff (CFP) Selection Committee’s top 25 heading into its bowl game.
Two of Nebraska’s three losses came in back-to-back weeks against ranked opponents on the road, Wisconsin and Ohio State, before being clobbered by unranked Iowa 40-10 in the final week of the regular season.
Why they can win:
Although Nebraska’s defense fell apart against Iowa in the final week of the season, the Husker defense ranks 26th in the country, allowing 22.8 points per game. That’s pretty good for playing in the Big Ten, a conference with four teams ranked in the top eight.
The Nebraska offense won’t overwhelm a quality opponent in a bowl game, though, especially if senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. doesn’t play. He hasn’t practiced the team’s last game.
— Sports Insights (@SportsInsights) December 23, 2016
With Armstrong Jr. expected to sit out, the Cornhuskers will look to run the ball more often than normal. Nebraska is 59th in the country with 178.2 rushing yards per game. That’s makes for a favorable matchup against Tennessee, which ranks 118th in the country in rush defense, allowing 249.9 yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, Nebraska is a top-30 rush defense in the country, allowing just 141.1 yards per game on the ground. This can also play to Nebraska’s advantage since Tennessee’s leading rusher is its quarterback.
Player to watch: RB Terrell Newby
The senior running back’s numbers don’t jump out at you. In fact, Newby only rushed for more than 100 yards in two games and averages fewer than five yards per carry. But if Armstrong doesn’t suit up, he’s going to be relied on more heavily. Although Armstrong is a quarterback, he is the second-leading rusher on the team and leads his team in rushing touchdowns with eight. With a backup quarterback who completes less than 50 percent of his passes, look for Newby to take advantage of an increased role against a team that allows about 250 rushing yards per game.
No. 21 Tennessee
How they got here:
Tennessee began the season ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll, but now finds itself just inside the CFP top-25 ranking. The Volunteers were never ranked any higher than No. 9 despite starting the season 5-0. Their three out-of-conference wins weren’t very convincing. It took overtime for Tennessee to beat Appalachian State at home to start the season, followed by a 21-point win against Virginia Tech and a narrow nine-point victory over Ohio.
The Volunteers’ schedule geared up to start SEC competition with its next four games against ranked opponents. They won the first two against Florida and Georgia but fell at the hands of then-ranked No. 8 Texas A&M in double overtime, finishing the difficult run with a beatdown on the third Saturday in October courtesy of No. 1 Alabama.
Tennessee slipped further with a third-straight loss the following week on the road against South Carolina. The Volunteers’ faced easier competition in the next three weeks, winning them all before losing to Vanderbilt in the final week of the season, dropping to 8-4 overall.
Why they can win:
Tennessee will have a big advantage if Nebraska’s starting quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr., doesn’t suit up. Armstrong has thrown for over 2,000 yards, is the Cornhuskers’ second-leading rusher and leads the team in rushing touchdowns. If he’s unable to play, the Volunteers will face Ryker Fyfe, who is 31-of-63 for 315 yards this season. The Volunteers could take advantage of facing a quarterback who completes less than 50 percent of his passes and focus on stopping the run.
Tennessee has a handful of offensive playmakers who make them the 29th-ranked scoring offense in the country with 34.5 points per game. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is the team’s leading passer and rusher, making for an exciting offense to watch and tough offense to stop. Wide receiver Josh Malone is 21st in the country with 18.9 yards per reception, giving the Volunteers a deep-threat potential.
The Volunteers also bring to the field a top-20 defense in turnovers forced per game. Nebraska was steamrolled by Iowa in the last game of the regular season, and with Armstrong most likely not playing, Tennessee’s defense could have a great day.
Player to watch: QB Joshua Dobbs
Dobbs hasn’t only thrown for 26 touchdowns in his final season at Tennessee; he’s also ran for nine. The senior leads the Volunteers in rushing attempts and yards, and those nine rushing touchdowns are tied for most on the team. His ability to throw and run effectively poses a threat for any opponent. He completes 63.3 percent of his passes and rushes for more than five yards per carry. He’s ran for more than 100 yards in three games this season, of which two he also threw for more than 200 yards. Tennessee has a great chance of winning is Dobbs is playing well.
Edited by Justin Meyer
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