2007 Outback Bowl - Tennessee vs. Penn State

Posted Dec 14, 2006

2007 Outback Bowl Preview & Prediction - Tennessee vs. Penn State

Penn State (8-4) vs. Tennessee (9-3)

Jan. 1st, 11:00 a.m. ET, ESPN

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Outback Bowl Player Profile: Penn State LB Sean Lee, team bowl history and more

The Big Ten has as much speed as the SEC. The Big Ten has as much speed as the SEC. The Big Ten has as much speed as the SEC.

The notion that the SEC is the fastest conference in the country isn't necessarily right (the Pac 10 can really, really move), but it does have a lot of speed teams since so many SEC defense choose to go small and quick rather than big and bulky. Even so, all the top teams across the nation have players who can run, jump, and fly, and Penn State is no exception despite getting the slow, strong and stodgy tags by most. However, if Tennessee wins in a walk, the message boards will lit up like a Christmas tree with SEC fans saying, "told you so."

Sure, Tennessee might win easily, but if it does, it won't be because of speed; it'll be because it's the better team. It'll just look like Penn State is slower.

National Rankings
Tennessee Penn State
Total Offense
33rd  374.33 ypg 55th  347.42 ypg
Total Defense
52nd  323.17 ypg 16th  279 ypg
Scoring Offense
27th  29.33 ppg 71st  22.50 ppg
Scoring Defense
38th  19.50 ppg 12th  14.75 ppg
Run Offense
95th  110.08 ypg 48th  147.25 ypg
Run Defense
71st  143.67 ypg 10th  87.83 ypg
Pass Offense
13th  264.25 ypg 57th  200.17 ypg
Pass Defense
29th  179.50 ypg 47th  191.17 ypg
Turnover Margin
42nd  0.25 72nd  -0.17
California W 35-18
Air Force W 31-30
Florida L 21-20
W 33-7
at Memphis W 41-7
at Georgia W 51-33
Alabama W 16-13
at S Car W 31-24
LSU L 28-24
at Arkansas L 31-14
at Vand
y W 39-10
Kentucky W 17-12
Penn State
Akron W 34-16
at N Dame L 41-17
Ytown St W 37-3
at Ohio State L 28-6
W 33-7
at Minn. W 28-27 OT
L 17-10
Illinois W 26-12
at Purdue W 12-0
at Wisconsin L 13-3
Temple W 47-0
Michigan St W 17-13
Position Ratings
relative to each other
T 5 highest
1 lowest
4.5 Quarterbacks 3
3.5 RBs 4
5 Receivers 4
4 O Line 4
3.5 D Line 4
4 Linebackers 5
4 Secondary 3.5
4 Spec Teams 4.5
4 Coaching 4

By design, the Nittany Lions have to slowwwwww the pace down with a power running game and good defense since it doesn't have the offensive firepower to hang punch for punch with the Vols. Coming off a Big Ten title and a win in the Orange Bowl, Penn State failed to inspire more than a big national yawn after getting its doors blown off by Notre Dame 41-17 and losing on two late pick sixes against Ohio State. The best win this year was over Minnesota, and that was only because a gift-wrapped pass interference call kept the game alive.

Against the four big boys on the slate (Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin), Penn State lost all four scoring just 36 points. Only 12 of those came before the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions have to try to win this game with its defense.

Unlike Penn State, Tennessee's passing game is as potent as it's been in years and will look to deliver the knockout blow right off the bat. With no running game to speak of, at least one that one be effective against the Nittany Lion defensive front, the Vols have to win with flash, dash, and a little bit of defense.

Tennessee got blasted too hard for a bad 2005, with several close losses against a nasty schedule, and got a little too much praise for a bounce-back year winning several tight ones against mostly mediocre teams like Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky. It hung around with Florida in a one-point loss despite not getting any offense, lived through an Erik Ainge ankle injury but lost to LSU and Arkansas in the process, and generally waxed the vastly inferior teams.

What can this game prove? Penn State can show that 2005 might not have been a one-year aberration in the program's slide into also-ran status. Tennessee can get its third ten-win season in four years and show that 2005 was a fluke. And one way or another, one team will keep the speed stereotype rolling, or put a temporary kibosh on it.

Players to watch: With top defensive tackle Ed Johnson suspended, even more responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the great Penn State linebacking corps. It took a few weeks for
Paul Posluszny to regain his form, but he soon became even better than he was in his Butkus Award winning 2005 season. Even though Poz won his second straight Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player, junior Dan Connor might have had the better year. He picked up the slack early when Poluszny was struggling, was more of a factor in the backfield throughout the year, and finished with more solo stops. Throw Sean Lee in the mix, and Tennessee's running game isn't going anywhere on this group.

Tennessee's defensive stars are in the secondary led by safeties Jonathan Hefney and Demetrice Morley. Hefney isn't big at only
5-8 and 174 pounds, but he can flat out fly and is one of the nation's best tackling defensive backs with a team-leading 93 stops with 66 solo. Morely also isn't the biggest guy around, and he isn't quite the tackler Hefney is, but he's great in space and tremendous in double coverage. As good as these two are, if they're making a lot of tackles, that means something's not working on the defensive front against the Penn State running game. That also means Tony Hunt is likely having a great game.

The Nittany Lions can't win by throwing the ball, so it's up to Hunt to carry the workload and the offensive hopes. As unnoticed and underappreciated as a Penn State running back can get, he rumbled for 1,228 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven 100-yard games. While he put up big numbers against teams like Temple, Youngstown State and Northwestern, he also ran for 135 yards on Ohio State. He's not going to break off many home runs against the Volunteer defensive back seven, but he should be able to pound the ball up the middle for three, four, seven yards a crack.

Tennessee's offense flourished thanks to a resurgent Erik Ainge and an All-America season from Robert Meachem. Always fast and always talented, the junior put it all together with a 67-catch, 1,265-yard, 11 touchdown campaign. While the emergence of Bret Smith and Jayson Swain has helped take some of the heat off, Meache's made several plays on his own cranking out yards after the catch as well as anyone in the nation. When Ainge gets him the ball on the move, big things happen, and he'll have even more work to shoulder with Smith out after academic problems.

Tennessee will win if... it gets up early. Penn State has speed and talent in the secondary, and although they held Ohio State down, they've been burned by most passing games with a pulse. Notre Dame ripped it apart, Michigan State had few problems, and Michigan and Minnesota did whatever it wanted to. Tennessee doesn't have to go to the home run ball on every play, but it has to quickly and efficiently spread the passing around and get everyone involved early on. Penn State will try to control the clock with its running game, but the Vols can do the same with its air attack as long as the offensive line keeps Ainge upright.

Penn State will win if... Hunt runs for 100 yards or more and controls the game. Anthony Morelli isn't ready for the big-time quite yet having failed to prove he can be a difference maker against a top team. If Hunt isn't running well, Penn State's offense likely won't be going anywhere. Hunt was held to 74 yards in the loss to Notre Dame, but the team got behind so quickly that it had to start throwing. He only ran for 33 yards in the loss to Michigan, and got shut down by Wisconsin only running for 35 yards. Tennessee has gotten into the most trouble when teams are effective running up the gut. It lost to Arkansas after giving up 259 yards, to LSU after allowing 231 yards, and struggled early against Georgia allowing 145 yards on the ground.

What will happen: Penn State's defense and Tennessee's offense will get all the attention, but Penn State's offense and Tennessee's defense will also be effective. The real stunner will be Tennessee's running game, which has all the parts healthy and ready to roll. it won't outgain Penn State's ground attack, but it'll do enough to provide the needed balance to keep control of the game. Two big pass plays will tear it open in the second half..

Line: Tennessee -4.5 ... CFN Prediction:
Tennessee 23 ... Penn State 13