Five Reasons Why Badgers Will Beat Volunteers

If you’re a stat lover, you probably agree with the current Vegas odds that have pegged the Tennessee Volunteers the favorite over the Wisconsin Badgers in this year’s Outback Bowl.

The Volunteers had by far the tougher road to the Outback Bowl, playing what was statistically the nation’s 14th toughest schedule while in the Southeastern Conference — statistically the nation’s single toughest conference. Conversely, the Badgers had a veritable waltz to the January 1st bowl game, taking on the nation’s 54th toughest schedule while mired in the Big Ten, only the nation’s sixth toughest conference (blame those lousy Gophers for diluting the Big Ten gene pool).

The Volunteers’ apparent road to victory becomes even smoother when looking at the offensive numbers put up by the two teams: Tennessee ranked 30th in points scored per game (33.4), while the Badgers ranked 47th (30.5). Tennessee’s passing attack was 43rd in the nation with 258 yards a game, while Wisconsin’s came in at 68th in the nation with 229.8 yards per game. Erik Ainge, the Volunteers’ senior quarterback, had a completion percentage five points higher than Wisconsin’s Tyler Donovan while throwing for over 700 yards more and scoring 13 more touchdowns than Donovan. Even Wisconsin’s dominance over Tennessee in the running game — 201.5 yards per game to 144.6 yards per game — could arguably be thrown out if Wisconsin’s sophomore sensation P.J. Hill is unable to play due to a nagging leg injury he suffered against Indiana back on October 27.

But I say leave the numbers for those crazy crime-fightin’ mathematicians that inhabit CBS Friday nights. The Wisconsin Badgers will beat the Tennessee Volunteers to win their third straight bowl game.

Why will Bret Bielema go 1-0 on New Year’s Day 2008? Let us count the ways:

1. Tennessee Letdown. The Volunteers were ten minutes away from beating LSU in the SEC Championship game and earning a BCS bid when Tennessee’s Erik Ainge decided to start throwing picks. The most crucial of his two late interceptions was obviously the first, which was returned by LSU cornerback Jonathan Zenon for the go-ahead score. So LSU punches its ticket to the BCS Championship game, and Tennessee gets tagged for the comparatively minor Outback Bowl. Now the Volunteers will have had a month to get over getting so close to the BCS, but undoubtedly the disappointment will linger as players ponder what could have been a much higher profile end to their season. On the other side, the Badgers started out the 2007 season with higher aspirations than the Outback Bowl, but after the team’s 38-7 spanking by Penn State on October 13, the team will be excited about playing on New Year’s Day.

2. Tennessee Downgraded. Heathcliff Huxtable would not approve of the poor grades some of the Tennessee Volunteers are bringing home. And neither does the NCAA, ruling six of the team’s players academically ineligible for the Outback Bowl. Among the players sitting this one out: Leading Tennessee receiver Lucas Taylor (73 catches for 1,000 yards) and linebacker Rico McCoy, who is second on the team with 106 tackles. Unless Taylor and McCoy can take a cue from Theo Huxtable and have themselves diagnosed with learning disabilities, their absences will surely be felt on both sides of the ball for the Volunteers.

3. Tennessee Abandoned. This month Volunteers offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe accepted the head football coaching job at Duke University, and uncertainty is swirling among Volunteers coaches and players as speculation mounts over whom on the Tennessee staff Cutcliffe plans to take with him. Cutcliffe is well-known for mentoring both Peyton Manning while previously with Tennessee and then his brother Eli while the head coach at Ole Miss (well, one out of two ain’t bad), and his departure is bound to have repercussions for the Volunteers. At the very least a distraction for Tennessee heading into the Outback Bowl.

4. Tennessee Bowled Over. Despite Tennessee’s regular season success under head coach Phillip Fulmer (146-45 since 1992), the Volunteers have been only a mediocre 7-7 in bowl games, including last year’s upset at the hands of an unranked Penn State team. In contrast, the Badgers have been largely impressive in their bowl appearances, going 9-3 under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema since 1994, including two straight victories over favored SEC opponents in the Capital One Bowl. Unfortunately, two of the three recent Badger bowl defeats have come in the Outback Bowl (2005 and 1998).

5. Tennessee Passover / Tennessee Runover. Even if P.J. Hill is unable to play due to injury, the Badgers should have little trouble putting up points against a surprisingly porous Tennessee defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the SEC in pretty much every category. Look for Tyler Donovan, Travis Beckum, and, if Hill can’t go, Zach Brown and Lance Smith to have big games. Of course, the Badgers defense have had their own struggles this year; the good news is the Badgers have shown that they can win the wild ones (Michigan State, Minnesota), so go ahead and throw out any notion that Wisconsin has to play a grind-it-out, time-of-possession style game to win. That idea is as antiquated as my old Atari 800 computer that my parents insist on keeping (but if you don’t mind waiting 45 minutes for it to load on a cassette player, a game of Jumpman makes an excellent diversion around the holidays).

So there you have it. Five good reasons why the Wisconsin Badgers will ring in 2008 with another bowl victory. And should the Badgers lose, the good news is the game will be over in plenty of time (set the alarm — kickoff is at 10 a.m. local time) to catch most of the New Year’s Day Beverly Hillbillies marathon on TV Land. Nothing says “Auld Lang Syne” like Buddy Ebsen.

Happy New Year!

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