LINCOLN, Neb. — Aside from the 1998 Orange Bowl, when Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and Tennessee QB Peyton Manning ended their collegiate careers opposite one another, there aren’t a lot of connections between Tennessee and Nebraska.
Even Huskers coach Mike Riley said in a teleconference with local media on Sunday that he doesn’t know much about these 21st-ranked Volunteers.
So here’s a quick rundown of Tennessee’s 8-4 season, a look at its offense and defense, and how Nebraska (9-3) matches up.
How Tennessee got to 8-4
Similar to Nebraska, Tennessee began its season slowly climbing the rankings with an undefeated start. The Volunteers began 5-0 and, like the Huskers, broke into the top 10. Then much like Nebraska’s season, the wheels fell off.
The No. 9 team in the country at the time, the Volunteers hosted Appalachian State at home for its first game. For a while it looked like the Mountaineers were going to give Tennessee a taste of what they gave Michigan in 2007.
Tennessee escaped 20-13 in overtime, dipped to 17 in the AP Top 25, then went onto win its next 4 games. On Sept. 17, Butch Jones’ team beat Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats — a Bobcats squad that would play for the MAC championship this season. The Volunteers also beat No. 17 Florida, the SEC East champion, and No. 22 Virginia Tech, which played for the ACC title against Clemson on Saturday.
The Vols lost 3 straight games after their 5-0 start: at then-No. 8 Texas A&M in double overtime, by 39 to No. 1 Alabama, then by 3 at unranked South Carolina.
Tennessee ended its season 3-1 in its final four games, with its fourth loss of the season coming against Vanderbilt 45-34 in the regular-season finale.
The Volunteers have one of the best offenses in the SEC, with a balanced air and rushing attack.
Nebraska will face its first mobile quarterback since J.T. Barrett torched Nebraska back in October. Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs finished the regular season fourth in passing yards in the SEC with 2,655 to go with a conference-best 26 touchdowns.
Dobbs also leads the team in rushing (713 yards on 139 carries with 9 touchdowns). Earlier this season, Tennessee’s leading rusher, RB Jalen Hurd, left the team unexpectedly. Since his departure, Tennessee’s leading running back has been junior Alvin Kamara, who has 565 yards and 9 touchdowns on 96 carries.
The Vols are eighth in the SEC in total offense with 437 total yards per game, a little more than 243 of those yards come through the air and 203 coming on the ground.
They average 36.3 points per game, which is second in the conference to only Alabama. That would be good enough for fourth in the Big Ten. Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, gives up 22.8 points on average.
But Nebraska struggled against Barrett, the senior throwing for 290 yards and 4 touchdowns in Ohio State’s 62-3 win.
Nebraska’s defensive line and secondary will both be tasked with stopping Dobbs, which is a tall task for a defense that’s struggled to slow down mobile quarterbacks.
Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have preached all season how much they want to run the ball. In this bowl game, if Nebraska runs there’s a good chance the Huskers will find some success.
In Tennessee’s final 3 games, against Vanderbilt, Missouri and Kentucky, the Volunteers gave up on average 661 total yards, 351 of which came on the ground. Tennessee finished 2-1 in those games, but the Tennessee rush defense was pitiful. The Volunteers gave up more than 400 rushing yards against both Missouri and Kentucky.
Nebraska, meanwhile, mostly struggled to run in the regular season despite its persistence on trying to do so.
In their 40-10 loss to Iowa to end the regular season, the Huskers ran for just 90 yards on 31 carries.
Riley said on Sunday that he isn’t sure whether senior QB Tommy Armstrong will be able to play against Tennessee. Armstrong could hardly walk off the field after Nebraska’s loss to Iowa, still struggling with a hamstring injury suffered in the Minnesota game on Nov. 12.
So if Armstrong cannot go, Nebraska might have to rely heavily on the running back tandem of senior Terrell Newby and freshman Tre Bryant. If Nebraska can find a way to run, it could keep up with Tennessee’s offense and make the Music City Bowl a shootout.