Outback Bowl Preview: Wisconsin vs. Tennessee

Outback Bowl
Jan. 1, 8 a.m. PST
Wisconsin (9-3) vs. Tennessee (9-4)
Tampa, Florida
Payout: $3,100,000
Spread: Tennessee – 2

For all the flack the Big 10 catches about being overrated and slow compared to the SEC, here’s two teams that bucked the “trend” last year. Tennessee lost to Penn State in the Outback Bowl and Wisconsin beat Arkansas in the Capitol One Bowl. So is the Big 10 really overrated and slow? Maybe, but not at Wisconsin. The Badgers have speed all over the field and will remind Tennessee of the Cal game earlier in the season.

Tennessee is in a difficult position preparing for this game. Two assistant coaches have already taken jobs at different schools but will remain with the Vols through the bowl game. Several starters were also declared academically ineligible, including weak-side linebacker Rico McCoy, defensive tackle Demonte’ Bolden and leading receiver Lucas Taylor. Amid all of this uncertainty, head coach Phillip Fulmer might have a hard time getting his players adequately prepared for a team as good as Wisconsin.

At the start of the season many thought Wisconsin would be a national championship contender. Injuries derailed those hopes and a few poor performances derailed those hopes. They can still record their third consecutive 10-win season and a win over the Volunteers would go a long way to restoring faith in the Big 10. Tailback PJ Brown is healthy but won’t get the start. Instead true freshman Zach Brown, who is more of a speed guy, will start in his place. Also expect sophomore Lance Smith to take a few carries. The Badgers will try to win this game on the ground and with the ability to use three different players with different styles, they’ll be able to keep Tennessee off balance. The Volunteer run defense wasn’t a great one to begin with. Losing Bolden and McCoy really hurts. Linebacker Jerod Mayo will show off his talent but without Bolden’s big body in the middle he might get caught up in the wash and get taken out of a number of plays.

UW quarterback Tyler Donovan is a pretty good athlete and he’s another reason the Vols will miss McCoy. McCoy’s athleticism would’ve helped in tracking down Donovan when he gets out of the pocket. Donovan isn’t a great passer though and if the Badgers have to throw the ball to win this game they’ll lose. Tennessee has a number of good athletes in the defensive backfield but the loss of Demetrice Morley this year really hurt. They’ve been forced to play younger players and some good has come out of that. True freshmen Brent Vinson and Eric Berry have shown flashes of pro-potential, but they’ve also shown their inexperience. Donovan might be able to take advantage of that if the running game is able to move the sticks. Play action passes to versatile tight end Travis Beckum could be a back breaker for Tennessee.

Tennessee’s offense also relies on a steady ground game but have a far better passing game to complement it. Arian Foster is the workhorse. He’s 225 lbs and has run for 1,162 yards and 12 TD’s but if not for quarterback Erik Ainge the offense would be anemic. Ainge has thrown for 3,157 yards, 29 TD’s and only 10 interceptions while completing 63 percent of his passes. Without leading receiver Lucas Taylor, Ainge will have to be comfortable completing passes to a less inspiring group of receivers. Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe will shoulder the load but tight end Chris Brown’s contribution might be the difference.

Wisconsin has given up some points this year. They can’t afford for that to happen in this game because they don’t have an offense that can keep up if this turns into a shootout. Corner Jack Ikegwuonu will have to take away one side of the field altogether. If Ainge is able to work the whole field he’s smart enough to get rid of the ball and avoid sacks but the Wisconsin linebacking corps has good speed and might be able to force some turnovers. This Badger defense has potential to be the best in the country next year if everyone comes back. Tennessee will need to come out firing on all cylinders to beat them.

Wisconsin, if they don’t need Tyler Donovan to win the game for them, should grind out a close, relatively low scoring victory. Next season they’ll be taking another run at the Big 10 championship while Phillip Fulmer tries yet again to hang onto his job at Tennessee.

Prediction:
Wisconsin 20 – Tennessee 17

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