Monday, December 31

The Outback Bowl: Kicking Off 2008!

You can’t spell Outback without UT, right? Of course, the line was a little better when Spurrier was 1) talking about the Citrus Bowl and 2) coaching a good team, but Tennessee was in Tampa last year and they’ll be there again this year, too. This will be Wisconsin’s third visit to the Outback Bowl, winning in 1995 against Duke (!) and losing in 1998 against Georgia.

As for the bowl itself, it’s the first bowl of the New Year. East Coasters will normally get a kick out of rolling out of bed and nursing a hangover while watching this game (or the Cotton Bowl). West Coasters will curse this damn bowl for kicking off at 8 AM while they’re still drunk off their ass, because hello, you have to call your brother on the East Coast at 7 AM to piss him off, but there’s a bowl game in four hours, so: fuck. And if you actually follow one of these teams when you’re on the West Coast and you’re at a party the night before, well, it sucks to be you.

Tennessee (by Coach Pendley)

From the hot seat to the SEC East crown, it was a nice year for Phil Fulmer. Of course, there’s the question of if it was even needed for Fulmer to be on the hot seat; after all, his teams have consistently gotten at least 8 wins a year with the exception of 2005 (which you can blame the offense for – thanks, Randy Sanders!), but complacency is the enemy of impatient fans. That was definitely the case in Knoxville this year, as opening the season with road losses to Cal and Florida bookending a not-terribly-impressive win over Southern Miss had the fanbase restless.

And then something funny happened – the Vols started to win. They had a huge statement win over Georgia and a tougher-than-it-looked win over Mississippi State. Losing to Alabama left the Vols at 4-3, 2-2 and it wasn’t likely that the Vols could carry the conference. Five straight wins (and a Georgia win over Florida, an LSU win over Florida, and an Auburn win over Florida) later, the Vols ended up in the SEC Championship game. They played a mostly even game, losing due to an Erik Ainge misreading of coverage turning into a pick six and a second misread effectively ending the game.

Of course, it’s tough to get too upset at Ainge, because without him Tennessee was likely headed for a 7-5 season. He provided most of the offense, passing for over 3,100 yards on the season with a 63% completion percentage and a 29/10 ratio. More than anything else, he’s been consistent; he still completes passes above 60% in losses and while the 7/4 ratio in losses isn’t great, it’s certainly not terrible. It also helps that Tennessee’s O-line only allowed 4 sacks on the season, no mean feat given the way this offense set up.

What will hurt is losing WR Lucas Taylor for the Outback Bowl; Taylor had been the Vols’ best receiver with an even 1,000 yards on the season. Without Taylor, the pass-catching duties fall to WRs Austin Rogers and Josh Brisco and TE Chris Brown Rogers has been the more consistent of the two options, but Brisco is still solid. Brown is more of a short-yardage TE than a real deep threat, but he catches a lot of the passes thrown his way.

Tennessee’s rushing offense was slightly less than expected this year, but that was due to LaMarcus Coker getting kicked off the team. Arian Foster took back the starting duties and excelled – rushing for 1,162 yards and 12 TDs – but Tennessee didn’t have a consistent second option. Montario Hardesty came closest, running for 4.12 yards per carry and 3 TDs.

On defense, Tennessee was less than impressive, giving up 162 yards a game on the ground and 245 yards a game through the air. The pass defense did shore up greatly in November and the run D did get a little better after a disastrous September It probably didn’t help matters that the D-line had issues getting to the QB, registering only 22 sacks on the year. Sure, that was 18 more than they gave up, but that’s a function of their offensive line, not drastically improved pass rushing.

Keys to Victory:
1: Hold P.J. Hill to less than 100 effective yards. One of the oddities of the UT / Arkansas game is that while McFadden did get 117 yards, they were almost all ineffective yards. I don’t’ particularly care if Hill is getting 5 yards on 3rd and 8, but I do care if it’s on 1st and 10. Stop Hill when they need to and it won’t matter a ton what happens on the meaningless rushes.

2: 100/50. A minimum of 100 yards for Foster, 50 for Hardesty. Wisconsin has either limited offenses to around (or less than) 50 yards on ground or around 150 and up. Not coincidentally, the teams that got stopped lost handily; if teams were able to top 200 yards on the ground against Wisconsin they went 3-1. The 100/50 is a minimum, but my hunch is that if Foster and Hardesty can get those minimums they’ll get enough yardage around the edges to approach the magical 200.

3: Keep Wisconsin’s secondary honest. The key to beating the Badgers lies in an effective running game, but since Tennessee will be able to field two solid WRs and an annoying matchup in Chris Brown, they should be able to keep seven in the box most of the game. If the running game is working, they won’t need 300+ yards from Ainge, but they will need some solid game management. Fortunately, Ainge can provide that.

4: Don’t let the coaching losses bother you. OC David Cutcliffe is gone after the season to Duke and WR/RB coach Trooper Taylor (who Vols fans damn near adore) is leaving to become the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State – but they’re not gone yet! Play hard in their last game.

Wisconsin (by Coach Lawrence)

Following a 12-1 campaign in 2006 and a bizarre bowl win over Arkansas in which they were outgained 386-201 but the Razorbacks imploded with 12 penalties for 123 yards, Wisconsin was the preseason favorite to finish second in the Big Ten to Michigan – the only team to beat the Badgers in 2006. When Michigan started off 0-2 (eventually 3-2) and Wisconsin 5-0, things looked promising for Wiscy. But beneath the record, Wisconsin had looked terrible in unnecessarily close wins over UNLV, Iowa, and Michigan State... even The Citadel hung with them for three quarters. Blame Tyler Donovan, who looked pretty good in week 1 vs Washington State before steadily declining over the course of the early season. And so the stage was set for an epic upset by upstart Illinois, rebounding to a 4-1 start after losing their opener to equally upstart Missouri. On their home turf, the Illini rode a +2 turnover margin and dominating ground games by Mendenhall and Williams to a 5-point victory. Okay, the season’s not over... what’s this? 31 point loss at Penn State? Now the Badgers were struggling and really missing the leadership (and arm) of John Stocco as teams were loading the box against PJ Hill. Wisconsin rebounded to annihilate Indiana and Northern Illinois before hosting Ohio State. A 10-3 halftime lead quickly evaporated in a second-half beatdown, and the Badgers chances of a New Year’s bowl hinged on beating Michigan – the team who was picked to finish first and were riding an 8-game winning streak. Anti-climactically, the Wolverines didn’t even play Mike Hart and rested Chad Henne after just five attempts, and the Badgers went on to dominate. In the season finale, Minnesota managed to make the game entertaining against Wisconsin, but ultimately the 250 yards gained by Zach Brown were too much to handle.

Wisconsin is successful when they pound the ball over and over; from the Ron Dayne era when the BCS kicked off through the success behind PJ Hill the last two seasons... even when Zach Brown is playing, Wiscy runs and runs to the tune of 45.5 carries and 201.5 yards a game. Donovan has at times provided strong support through the passing game, but really his job is to keep the defense honest and not turn the ball over. However, the Badgers do sport arguably the best tight end in the nation, the team’s leading receiver Travis Beckum who averages 80 ypg in catches and leads the team in TD catches with 6.

Defensively, nothing really stands out. Wisconsin gives up 139 yards rushing and 210 yards passing per game – neither terrible nor great. Fans might be concerned that the defensive numbers have been average against below-average offenses, hmm. Then again, the Big Ten has posted a 2-1 record in their December bowls, so their streak of four straight seasons without a winning bowl record may be nearing an end? We’ll see how all that shapes out.

Keys to Victory:
1) The running game. Try 243 yards in victory, 75 yards in defeat – that’s what the split stats on Wisconsin’s ground game say. It is absolutely critical that the Badgers are able to ride the legs of Hill and Brown. If both played I’d say 150/75 should be their yardage goals, but we don’t know how much Hill will be in the game so Brown may need to be prepared to post 175+ by himself. He’s ready for the responsibility, as the Michigan game demonstrated.

2) Donovan and Beckum need to hook up for 100 yards. Passing the ball at all keeps the defense honest, but Beckum demands help from the linebackers and safeties, which keeps the running lanes a little more clean. Furthermore, Donovan needs to throw more TDs than INTs. 1:0 is fine if it’s that.

3) Load the box, stop Foster and Hardesty. The goal should be 100 yards or less total rushing. While Erik Ainge is a strong QB, Tennessee lacks the receiver corps of last season to make up for, say, a 150 yard deficit in the ground game.