Do you hear that? Off in the distance? That faint “whoo!” you hear is the sound of Tennessee’s hype train, chugging hard toward the next season.
The 23rd-ranked Vols kicked off what they hope will be a big 2016 by whipping No. 13 Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl Friday afternoon in Tampa. The 39-point margin was the largest in Outback Bowl history.
Tennessee started slowly, not denting the scoreboard until the 14 second mark of the first quarter on a 14-yard Joshua Dobbs run. Aaron Medley nudged the lead to 10-0 with a 35-yard field goal at the 10:47 mark of the second quarter, and Northwestern showed its only sign of life for the entire afternoon when Justin Jackson capped a 75-yard, five-minute touchdown drive with a five-yard dash, pulling the Wildcats to within 10-6 (Jack Mitchell‘s PAT try failed).
The Vols immediately answered by racing 75 yards in nine plays, culminating in an 11-yard Alvin Kamara run, effectively putting the game out of Northwestern’s reach at 17-6 with 2:18 left in the first half.
Jalen Hurd added a three-yard run in the third quarter, and Dobbs and John Kelly added scoring dashes of their own in the fourth quarter. Evan Berry put the exclamation point on the Vols’ day by returning an interception 99 yards for a touchdown with eight seconds left in the game.
The interception capped an abysmal day for the Northwestern (10-3) offense. Zack Oliver and Clayton Thornson combined to complete 14-of-33 throws for 129 yards with no scores and four interceptions. The ground attack was out-gained 226-130, and the Wildcats converted only four of 15 third-down tries.
Tennessee (9-4) closed the year with wins in their final five games and losses to national finalist Alabama by five, national semifinalist Oklahoma in double overtime, to Florida by one and to Arkansas by four. Though perhaps we should ask the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers what a major bowl victory does for next season. That Tennessee team closed with four wins in five tries and a shellacking of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl — only to start this season 3-4, while Iowa plays in the Rose Bowl later today.
But with Dobbs (166 passing yards, 48 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Hurd (24 carries for 130 yards and a touchdown) returning, the Vols will be heavy favorites to reach Atlanta for the SEC Championship game, and perhaps even return to Tampa for the 2016 national championship game. With eight months to speculate, there’s no telling how high expectations could rise for Butch Jones and company.
When that train is barreling upon you in July and August, don’t say you didn’t hear it coming.