NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nebraska and Tennessee had similar 2016 seasons.
The Huskers began 7-0 and worked their way into the AP Top 10. The Volunteers started out 5-0 and looked like a team Alabama would have to reckon with for the SEC title.
The Nebraska suffered its first loss in overtime, the beginning of a slide that saw the Huskers lose three of their last five games. Tennessee suffered its first loss in OT, as well, but that began a slide of three straight losses.
So instead of playing in conference title games or matching up in a New Year’s Six Bowl, Nebraska (9-3) and Tennessee (8-4) teams will each try to save face in the Music City Bowl on Friday.
Here’s how the two teams match up, position by position.
In one corner, you have a veteran senior who’s thrown for more than 2,000 yards in each the past two seasons. In the other, a perennial backup who has never started two consecutive games.
Spoiler alert: The advantage behind center goes to Tennessee and Joshua Dobbs.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Dobbs is elusive, has a gun for an arm and can improvise. He threw for 2,655 yards and 26 touchdowns this season while adding 713 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground.
Nebraska saw a quarterback similar to Dobbs in Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, but they couldn’t stop Barrett whatsoever in a 62-3 loss in Columbus in early November.
Nebraska, meanwhile, will start senior QB Ryker Fyfe in place of fellow senior Tommy Armstrong, missing his final collegiate game with a hamstring injury. Fyfe completed 31 passes on 63 attempts this season for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns. He led Nebraska to a 28-7 victory of Maryland in his only start of 2016, the penultimate game of the regular season.
The sidearm gunslinger has improved dramatically since his only other start, a 55-45 loss at Purdue in 2015. But he’s no Dobbs.
Nebraska will have a healthy Terrell Newby, which is good news for the Huskers. The senior struggled with a leg injury in the latter half of the season but is cleared and likely to start on Friday.
Behind Newby, Nebraska will also have its counterpunch in Devine Ozigbo, who hasn’t played much at all since spraining his ankle early on in the season. In the first few games, Ozigbo and Newby created a 1-2 punch that led to Nebraska running for more than 200 yards in three of its first four wins.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has plenty of speed but lots its leading rusher halfway through the season.
Junior RB Alvin Kamara took over for junior Jalen Hurd after the junior left the program eight games in to the season. Kamara has 565 yards and 9 TDs on 96 carries this season and is great out in space, plus he can catch the ball out of the backfield (33 catches, 346 yards, 4 TDs).
Nebraska’s not been able to run recently, but if the Huskers can get Newby and Ozigbo going against Tennessee, a team that gave up on average more than 300 rushing yards a game in its final three games, Nebraska should have the advantage.
With no Jordan Westerkamp for Nebraska, this matchup is closer than it could’ve been.
The Huskers do still have senior WRs Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly (the former playing in Armstrong’s shoes, literally), plus junior De’Mornay Pierson-El and sophomore Stanley Morgan Jr. That group will certainly help out Fyfe.
But Tennessee has three players with more than 30 receptions this year, which Nebraska does not have. Josh Malone has 45 catches for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Jauan Jennings has 34 catches for 521 yards and 7 scores.
Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart called those two receivers “thoroughbreds” this week, and the pair of 6-foot-3 receivers really are. They could give Nebraska’s corners fits.
This position group is close, but the edge goes to Tennessee because of its health.
Offensive and defensive lines
Nebraska has a solid defensive front, but no one compares to Derek Barnett.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive end has 12 sacks this season (more than double any Nebraska player) and 47 solo tackles. The junior also has 18 tackles for loss and an interception.
Barnett alone gives Tennessee the advantage. He’ll test Nebraska’s offensive tackles, particularly sophomore Nick Gates.
Nebraska could throw a few different tackles Barnett’s way to throw him off, but Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh doesn’t love moving pieces during the game. So it’ll be up to Gates to slow down a future first-rounder.
So the advantage goes to Tennessee for that matchup.
For the opposite side, Nebraska’s defensive front hasn’t been able to put pressure on a quarterback all season, and will have a tough time tracking Dobbs in the backfield.
So Tennessee gets the advantage there, as well.
Nebraska’s linebackers didn’t play well in the losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. But the Huskers will have a generally healthy linebacking corps with seniors Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas, plus sophomore Dedrick Young.
Tennessee’s linebackers had an incredibly difficult time closing gaps against Missouri and Kentucky, when the two teams ran for more than 300 yards on the Volunteers.
So though Nebraska’s linebackers are a bit depleted, they’re playing significantly better than Tennessee’s linebackers.
Nebraska’s new cornerbacks coach Donte Williams recently called juniors Chris Jones and Josh Kalu future NFL corners. Both have had tremendous seasons and will return next season, and both will be tested Friday against Tennessee’s tall receivers.
But Jones and Kalu have proven they can cover about anyone.
Nebraska’s only been beaten over the top a handful of times, and Kalu and Jones have a combined 4 interceptions and 17 pass breakups.
Nebraska’s secondary, despite not having academically ineligible Nate Gerry, is the Huskers’ biggest advantage against Tennessee.
On that note, Nebraska’s special teams is without a doubt the team’s biggest disadvantage.
Nebraska’s failed to score a return touchdown this season, while Tennessee has a score on both kick and punt returns.
Tennessee also holds the advantage in both the kickoff and punting games, as well.
This one isn’t close.
Against Tennessee in its home state: Strike 1.
Coming off of a 40-10 loss at Iowa: Strike 2.
Without your veteran QB in Armstrong: Strike 3.
Nebraska is an underdog in this matchup. That doesn’t necessarily mean the game won’t be close, but there are a lot of factors weighing into the 6-point spread Vegas has against Nebraska.