Game Day: Nebraska vs. Tennessee

Finding a rhythm

After the highs and lows of the season, Huskers think they can compose a powerful ending while missing three of the top members of the band. “I never thought of it like that, but I think that’s true,” coach Mike Riley said when offered the analogy. After a beat, he deadpanned: “I think we’ve got the right drummer.”

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2-Minute Drill by Rich Kaipust

Nebraska rush offense vs. Tennessee rush defense

The Huskers weren’t always running it well when Tommy Armstrong was healthy. Now, they must find a way to cover for what they lose without the quarterback run threat against an SEC defense. The line has had a month to get healthy, but NU will not only have to open some holes but have I-back Terrell Newby do some of his best work — and he's coming off a minor knee injury. Tennessee, however, gives up 231.7 yards a game and 5.15 per carry.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Tennessee pass defense

NU starts out with one hand tied behind its back, going without its all-time leading passer (Armstrong) and second-most productive receiver in school history (Jordan Westerkamp). The Huskers don’t want to make it any harder on Ryker Fyfe than it needs to be, so that will require some running success and manageable situations. If not, defensive end Derek Barnett and the Vols defensive line will be dictating what happens.

Tennessee rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Vols’ success came and went this season, and having Jalen Hurd walk away in October didn’t help. Alvin Kamara is a breakaway threat, but not a workhorse. Nebraska also will need to contain the threat from quarterback Joshua Dobbs (713 yards, nine TDs). In Nebraska’s last seven games, they allowed 223, 238 and 264 yards in the three losses, and fewer than 100 yards in the four wins. NU can’t afford the big play, which stung it at Iowa.

Tennessee pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Nebraska is down a key player here, too, with senior safety Nate Gerry ineligible and sophomore Antonio Reed making his first career start. Can Tennessee take advantage? It has a veteran quarterback with Dobbs, and the ability to go down the field with Josh Malone (18.9 yards per reception) and Jauan Jennings (15.3). The Huskers not only will have to find a way to pressure Dobbs but not let him escape the pocket. If he does, that could be trouble.

Special teams

Tennessee is better almost everywhere, with the exception of Nebraska having a place-kicking edge with Drew Brown. Vols junior Trevor Daniel is one of the nation’s best punters (44.7 yards per kick), and Tennessee is dangerous on both kickoff returns (24.9 yards) and punt returns (11.4). The Husker troubles became such an issue that special teams coordinator Bruce Read was fired after the Iowa game.

Intangibles

Both teams are coming off disappointing efforts against rivals to finish the regular season, with Nebraska getting pounded 40-10 at Iowa and Tennessee blowing a halftime lead and losing 45-34 at Vanderbilt. Both have said all the right things about bowl motivation, but it’s always hard to tell until kickoff. The penalty numbers are similar, but NU is better with turnovers. UT will have a definite home edge in Nashville and Nebraska is just 1-4 against SEC teams in bowl games since 2002.

Key matchup: Tennessee DE Derek Barnett vs. Nebraska OTs Nick Gates and Cole Conrad

All you need to know about Barnett is that he shares the Tennessee school record for sacks with Reggie White. The junior will mix speed and bull rushes, and Nebraska likely will have to give Gates and Conrad some help to slow his charge.

Our take

Nebraska knows the value of preparing the right way and playing well in the postseason after the 37-29 win over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl last year lifted the Huskers’ spirits for the winter. NU will head into this one without the services of three of its most important players, however, so Tennessee can take advantage if the Vols are ready to do so. Can Nebraska score enough to keep pace?

Our prediction: Tennessee 37, Nebraska 27

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