NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Tennessee Volunteers find themselves far from where they started this season.
No Top 25 ranking, much less one in the top 10.
No conference championship, not even a division title.
And the Music City Bowl is nowhere close to the magnitude of the Sugar Bowl the Vols had a chance at going into their regular season finale.
Now here comes No. 24 Nebraska, a program that ended the careers of Tennessee star quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tee Martin with ugly bowl losses. The Music City Bowl on Friday offers a chance to salvage a season nowhere close to what Tennessee expected.
“It’d be great to finish with a win because we didn’t play good the last game, and you always want to go out strong and finish off the season with a win,” Tennessee’s All-American defensive end Derek Barnett said.
The Cornhuskers (9-3) can commiserate with Tennessee (8-4). Nebraska finally worked its way back into the top 10 for the first time since 2010, going as high as No. 7 before an overtime loss at Wisconsin. A 62-3 drubbing by No. 2 Ohio State and a 40-10 loss at Iowa cost Nebraska a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas said a win would be huge for seniors to end the season on a positive note while setting up the Cornhuskers for 2017. Boosting conference pride wouldn’t hurt either, considering Tennessee beat Northwestern and Iowa in bowls each of the past two seasons.
“Definitely all you’ve heard for the last couple years is SEC, SEC, SEC,” Banderas said. “Finally now the Big Ten’s really starting to make that push. Just to get a win for the Big Ten as a conference and beat the SEC who’s talked about very highly would be obviously big.”
Some other things to know about this Music City Bowl, sponsored by Franklin American Mortgage:
THIRD TIME AROUND: Both Nebraska and Tennessee were ranked in the top six in the 1998 Orange Bowl and 2000 Fiesta Bowl with the Cornhuskers winning each time. Nebraska is making its debut in this bowl, which Tennessee lost in 2010 in double overtime 30-27 to North Carolina.
WHO’S AT QB: Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has not practiced in Nashville with his injured hamstring, though coach Mike Riley has said Armstrong would be available only in an emergency. Ryker Fyfe, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, will start. He broke his left wrist in a 28-7 win over Maryland on Nov. 19. Fyfe will lean heavily on an offensive line that has allowed only 11 sacks this season, especially with senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp out after having surgery to repair his knee.
REGGIE WHITE’S RECORD: Barnett tied the school record set by the late Reggie White with his 32nd sack in Tennessee’s 45-34 loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt in the regular season finale. One more, and the junior has the record to himself. Barnett leads the Southeastern Conference and is tied for sixth nationally with 12 sacks this season and is 15th nationally with 18 tackles for loss.
DOBBS’ FINALE: Joshua Dobbs has a chance to do what Manning and Martin, who won the Vols’ last national championship, couldn’t by beating Nebraska in the final game of his career. Dobbs is second only to Manning (101) with 83 career touchdowns, and Dobbs threw an SEC-best 26 TDs this season. Dobbs has the Vols averaging 50.2 points over their final four games.
MISSING GERRY: Nebraska will be without first-team All-Big Ten safety Nathan Gerry, who’s ineligible for this game. The Cornhuskers rank 21st nationally allowing 350.6 yards and will be leaning on junior safety Kieron Williams, who has a team-high five interceptions.
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