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Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and his program will benefit financially from their trip to the Outback Bowl, where they'll take on Northwestern on New Year's Day in Tampa, Fla.

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Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker (18) runs for a touchdown against Minnesota after picking up a fumble, as safety Traveon Henry (2) looks on. Northwestern won that game 27-0 and faces Tennessee in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.

Vols glance

Tennessee (8-4) vs. No. 12 Northwestern (10-2)
›  Raymond James Stadium; Tampa, Fla.
›  Friday, noon
›  ESPN2 and 106.5 FM

Cardiac Cats

Tennessee played in six games decided by seven points or less and lost four of them. Northwestern, on the other hand, won all five of its close games, some in more dramatic fashion than others. Here’s a quick recap:

24-19 vs. Ball State (Sept. 26): After trailing 10-7 at halftime, Northwestern scored 17 points in the third quarter and ran out the clock with three first downs after the Cardinals’ final threat ended in a field goal with 4:34 left.

30-28 at Nebraska (Oct. 24): The Cornhuskers kicked a go-ahead field goal to open the fourth quarter, but Dan Vitale’s 37-yard touchdown catch and a short field goal made it 30-22 with seven minutes remaining. Nebraska scored with 4:23 left, but the two-point conversion pass was batted away. Northwestern again ran out the clock.

23-21 vs. Penn State (Nov. 7): The Wildcats threw away a 20-7 halftime lead after losing starting QB Clayton Thorson, but Nick VanHoose intercepted a pass as Penn State drove to add to a 21-20 lead and Austin Carr’s 23-yard reception from backup Zack Oliver on third-and-15 set up Jack Mitchell’s winning 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left.

› 21-14 vs. Purdue (Nov. 14): On the go-ahead drive, Thorson had two 16-yard runs, one on third-and-14, and Justin Jackson’s 2-yard plunge with 4:37 left turned out to be the winning score as Northwestern got a quick defensive stop and — again — ran out the clock with its ground game.

› 13-7 at Wisconsin (Nov. 21): This was the wildest of Northwestern’s close games. Wisconsin had touchdowns overturned by replay reviews on back-to-back plays; then the Wildcats got a sack to knock the Badgers back to the 11. After a spike to stop the clock, Wisconsin had one final play to win it, but backup quarterback Bart Houston’s pass fell incomplete.

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TAMPA, Fla. — Northwestern won 10 football games this season and notched perhaps the best nonconference victory of any team in the country.

The Wildcats boast one of the nation's stingiest defenses and displayed some of the steeliest nerves in college football by emerging victorious in five games decided by seven points or less.

It was enough for Northwestern to be ranked 12th in both polls and 13th by the College Football Playoff committee.

Yet the Wildcats are 8.5-point underdogs in Friday's Outback Bowl game against Tennessee.

"I think we've been the underdog almost every game this year," All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker said after Northwestern's practice at Jesuit High School on Tuesday.

"It's just a great challenge for us. It's a great team we're going against, and you have to give them credit. They've earned it. They've played a tough schedule. The SEC is great football, and we have to be ready."

"For us to be eight-point underdogs, I mean, we have to go out there and play the game. That's why we play the game. We have to go out there and do what we do. At the end of the day, whatever the scoreboard is, that's what it'll read."

There only 10 postseason games between teams in the top 25 of the CFP committee's final rankings. Beyond the New Year's Six games there are Tennessee-Northwestern, Baylor-North Carolina (Russell Athletic), Florida-Michigan (Citrus) and TCU-Oregon (Alamo).

The biggest spread in those games? Yep, the Volunteers over the Wildcats.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald joked to reporters after Monday's practice that the only person picking his team to win is his 6-year-old son.

"Both teams have played really tough schedules," said defensive end Dean Lowry, another All-Big Ten selection. "They've played some really good teams as well. We don't pay too much attention to rankings, but we know they're a very good team.

"They probably should be ranked higher than they are, in terms of just talent and what they do."

What Northwestern does very well is play defense and win close games.

The Wildcats did not play a gauntlet of high-octane offenses, but it's no accident they rank seventh nationally in points allowed and 11th nationally in yards allowed.

Northwestern held its opponent below its season average in scoring or total offense in each of its 10 wins. The Wildcats pitched 29 shutouts in 48 quarters this season. They allowed an FBS-low five touchdown passes despite facing the 19th-most pass attempts.

"I think definitely all year we've had a chip on our shoulder," Lowry said. "This offseason we knew we'd be pretty good, and I think that people didn't really expect us to be that good. We definitely had that sort of blue-collar mentality all offseason to go out there and prove people wrong.

"I think it started off in our first game when we beat Stanford, so since then that's been a really big confidence booster."

Walker (19.5 tackles for loss), Lowry (13.5) and Deonte Gibson (12.5) helped Northwestern rack up 84 tackles for loss, and the Wildcats scored 51 points off 21 turnovers.

"I would like to say it's all the players, but you've got to start with Coach Hank," Walker said, crediting Northwestern's longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. "He devises a great plan for us week in and week out, and the guys just go out there and execute it.

"It's starts up front with the D-line: Deonte Gibson, Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, C.J. Robbins. All those guys up front, they start it off. The back four, they keep us protected over the top, and the linebackers are able to play downhill.

"That's the method to our madness right now."

After going 3-8 in one-possession games the past two seasons, Northwestern was 5-0 in such games this season.

"You're going to have those tough games, and you have to be able to win those," Walker said. "The last two years we weren't able to get the job done, and I think we've been pretty successful this year. That starts with the leadership of the seniors and Coach Fitz."

Northwestern should have plenty of motivation beyond any perceived slight involving rankings or point spreads.

The Wildcats have just two wins in 11 bowl appearances in program history and never have had an 11-win season.

It's there for the taking against the Vols.

"Eleven wins would be huge for our program," Lowry said, "in terms of just where we stand and the legacy of our senior class and getting this team and this program back on the winning track.

"We want to come to Northwestern to receive the best education and compete for championships, and that's just one of the paths to get there, is just winning bowl games."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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