KNOXVILLE — Tennessee is one of four Southeastern Conference teams facing a Big Ten opponent in the postseason.
The Volunteers certainly would like a similar outcome to their most recent encounter with a team from that conference — not that they're expecting it to be as easy as their 45-28 rout of Iowa was in last season's TaxSlayer Bowl.
In January in Jacksonville, Fla., the Vols were the more interested and more focused team, and their speed advantage was even more glaring as they raced to a 28-0 first-half lead and were never threatened by the Hawkeyes.
Tennessee takes an 8-5 record against Big Ten teams in bowl games into its New Year's Day clash with Northwestern in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., where head coach Butch Jones is expecting a sturdy challenge.
"They're 10-2 for a reason," he said of the Wildcats earlier this week when asked about the supposed speed advantage SEC teams have against Big Ten foes. "They've won five (straight) games for a reason. There's a reason why they're the (13th)-ranked football team in the country. They're going to challenge us schematically in all three phases. They're really good in the return game as well on special teams. This is a football team that knows how to win.
"You just don't beat Stanford if you don't have team speed. They have very, very good team speed."
Tennessee is 19-11 against current members of the 14-team Big Ten, which has added Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers in recent years. The Vols are 8-6 against those three additions and 11-5 against the other Big Ten programs. Three of those five defeats are to Penn State, which beat Tennessee in bowl games in 1992, 1994 and 2007.
The Vols won their only previous game against Northwestern. In the 1997 Citrus Bowl, quarterback Peyton Manning finished his junior season — in what was expected to be his final college game at the time — with a record performance by throwing for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-28 victory.
Current Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was a starting linebacker on that team, and during a conference call Sunday night he recalled breaking his wrist in the first quarter.
"That was not a fun end to the game," he said.
The Wildcats are only 2-9 in bowls, but they won their most recent one against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to cap a 10-3 record for the 2012 season.
Excluding games against current SEC members Missouri (2008) and Texas A&M (2011) while both were in the Big 12, Northwestern's only other bowl games against SEC opponents were an overtime loss to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl and the 1997 loss to Tennessee.
Northwestern is making its sixth bowl appearance in 10 seasons under Fitzgerald, and his success at a long-time struggling program prompted Jones to study the Wildcats and visit Fitzgerald a couple of years ago. It's common practice for Tennessee's staff — and some other schools — to visit and host coaches from different schools during the offseason to talk schemes and compare notes on how their programs are run.
"You're trying to reach out to different football programs that match your style of play or your philosophy, programs that you respect, that have won over a period of time and you like what they do," Jones said. "Fitz has done a great job there of developing and building that program at a high level of consistency.
"It was just getting together, which we always do with a number of institutions and a numbers of schools, and just talking football and having our own mini-clinic."
In 22 days the two sides will meet again with a big win and a small measure of conference bragging rights on the line.
"It's going to be a great challenge, but we'll work our butts off," Fitzgerald said. "I have a ton of respect for Coach Jones and the job that he's done at all of his stops, and especially there at Tennessee. They're a very talented football team that are physical — that I've seen on tape — and have really hit their stride here the last half of the season.
"I think it's two very confident football teams, two probably playing their best football of the year right now and two that would probably like to have some games back."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.