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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Outback Bowl (Bowl #22)...By S.H. Austin

1/1, 11 a.m. ET ESPN

Tennessee by 4 points, total of 41

Tennessee: 9-3
Penn State: 8-4
There wasn't much certainty about either of these teams entering the season. Athlon's preseason publication picked Tennessee 20th...but had them penciled in for five wins, one loss, and six coin flip games. If there's that many coin flips, the jury's still out on how good you're going to be. Phil Steele had Tennessee at #12. Both predictions may have seemed high considering that only nine starters were coming back from a 5-6 team that didn't even play in a bowl. The program has a good reputation. The pundits were expecting the bounce back that eventually did happen. Penn State was 31st in Steele and 35th in Athlon. They went 11-1 last season, but only returned eight starters and had to break in a new quarterback. Athlon penciled in six wins, three losses, and three coin flips. Considering all the uncertainty, both publications pretty much had it right. Both teams can be reasonably happy with how the season went.

Tennessee: 29-20 versus the 11th ranked schedule
Penn State: 23-15 versus the 27th ranked schedule
You might be able to make the case that Tennessee's schedule was even tougher than 11th. The USA Today computer gave the top ten spots to Pac 10 teams. Since Oregon and Arizona State did a good job of dispelling the myth that the Pac 10 was a killer conference in earlier bowls, Tennessee should move up the ladder. They had the best non-Pac 10 schedule of anybody. They had an unlucky draw from the SEC West, getting divisional champ Arkansas, runner-up LSU, and Alabama. They were in a tough division themselves, and they played California in a non-conference game. Penn State's schedule probably wasn't as good as the rankings suggest. They did play Notre Dame, and got everyone in the Big three of the Big 10. The other non-con games were Akron, Youngstown State, and Temple. It was a down year in the Big Ten. Penn State held its own considering all the new bodies. Tennessee had the more impressive season. That's why they're favored by more than a field goal on a neutral field.

Tennessee: 7-5 versus the spread
Penn State: 4-7 versus the spread
Penn State's a "name" team coming off an 11-1 season. It took a while for the public to accept that they weren't as good this year as last year. Two of Penn State's covers came against Akron and Temple. They really didn't match up well vs. the upper half of their schedule. Tennessee was 4-1 ATS in the first month, but limped home with a 1-3 ATS finish. An injury to quarterback Erik Ainge had an influence on that ATS record. He should be healthy for the bowl.

Tennessee: +51.1, with a season turnover differential of +2
Penn State: +68.4, with a season turnover differential of -2
Penn State rolled up some stats with a 568-184 edge over Youngstown State, and a 411-74 edge over Temple. So, the average is a bit misleading. We should say though that the team wasn't crushed in stats by Ohio State (253-248 in the rain), Michigan (312-186 for Michigan in the cold), or Wisconsin (341-201 in the cold). Well, the offense was useless. But, the defense was clearly holding up its end of the bargain, and deserves respect in that light. Tennessee had a killer schedule, and should be proud of any positive numbers they post.

Tennessee: 23-10, solid numbers considering quality defenses faced
Penn State: 11-9, young quarterback struggled to find the end zone

Tennessee has had troubles running the ball this year. This is a conservative head coach who prefers smash mouth stuff. The SEC is loaded, so it's tough to win with that style and nothing else. When the other team stops the run, Tennessee will pass 30-40 times with varying degrees of success. Big plays typically trump the inconsistency. The Vols almost lost to Kentucky in the season finale though, because they inexplicably couldn't pass against a horrible defense. This program is known for its inconsistency, which is why coach Philip Fulmer is always on the hot seat. He under-achieves championship expectations, but usually has a lot of talent and a lot of options. Probably a frustrating team to root for.

Penn State is a smash mouth team that passed a surprising amount this year. Quarterback Anthony Morelli has a strong arm. It must look great in practice, because the team's been throwing the ball 30-35 times most of the year even though his TD/INT ratio was so bad. You get the impression that the Nittany Lions are going to connect on a lot of big plays once Morelli gets his bearings. It's taken him all year and it hasn't happened. Inclement weather in the Midwest certainly didn't help him.

Not easy to find good matches here. You have a Northern smash mouth team that's trying to figure out how to pass more often. You have a Southern inconsistent team that routed California but struggled against Kentucky on the same field to bookend their season.

Away from home, Penn State didn't play well vs. bowl caliber teams. Penn State (+8) lost to Notre Dame 41-17 Penn Sate (+16) lost to Ohio State 28-6 (14-6 until late) Penn Sate (+7) lost to Wisconsin 13-3

Penn State did beat Minnesota 28-27 in overtime, but Minnesota's barely a bowl caliber team.

Tennessee's all over the place, and you could cherry-pick games that look good or bad. Alabama is a decent match for Penn State. Tennessee outgained them 359-211 but only won 16-13 on the scoreboard because of a 3-0 turnover disadvantage. Doesn't that sum up everything? Big yards, bad turnovers, small consistency.

Tennessee should be excited to get back to a New Year's Day bowl, particularly after missing out last season.

Penn State wasn't expected to have a great year, but still finds themselves in a New Year's Day Bowl since the BCS championship game features a Big Ten school (everyone stepped up a spot on the ladder). Don't see any edges either way here.

Tennessee didn't qualify for a bowl last year
Penn State beat Florida State 26-23 in overtime (tied at 16 after regulation) in the Orange Bowl, winning yardage 394-284

Tennessee was 2-3 ATS this century before last year's surprising 5-6 campaign. They either looked great or horrible, with all five games missing the Vegas spread by double digits. Again, inconsistency is the theme.

Penn State's win last year came in their first bowl appearance since the 2002 season, and only their second this century. Many had forgotten how far the Penn State program had fallen for awhile there. Won-lost records from 2000-2004: 5-7, 5-6, 9-3, 3-9, 4-7.

The favorite is extremely inconsistent, and hasn't had a bowl game land within single digits of the spread this century. The underdog has been awful away from home versus top competition, and has a quarterback who has yet to thrive in big games. This sets up an extremely volatile situation that could easily go either way by 10-14 points or more.

If Penn State's kid quarterback makes mistakes, the Vols could run away and hide the way Notre Dame did in that 41-17 matchup in September. If he doesn't, this could turn into a low scoring nailbiter...the kind of which Tennessee played against Florida (21-20 loss), Alabama (16-13 win), and Kentucky (17-12 win).

You could see those scenarios impact the side or the total. We could actually see just making either side a parlay. If Tennessee clicks, it's going Over you might as well play Tennessee and Over and shoot for the extra payoff. If Penn State shows up with fire, they cover a 13-10 yawner. Remember last year's bowl game was 16-all after regulation.

Well, we can't forget that New Year's Day typically has one inexplicable blowout where the dog runs away and hides...and nobody can figure out how. That happened with these conferences last year when Wisconsin won easily as a 10-point dog vs. Auburn.

This game is a toughie. Because the weather should be good...and Penn State has gotten in the habit of passing 30 times a game...we're going to shade things to the Over. This is a low total for a game that's going to have this much passing. If it's going to be rainy, then we switch back to the Under. We're interested in seeing if some of the Midwestern teams play higher scoring games in the postseason than projected. Many may have had their stats condensed artificially because so many Saturdays were inclement in that part of the country.

We'll leave the team side alone because of the volatility. There will be enough reasons to yell at the TV on this day without spending the early hours cursing whichever head coach is having an off day. Both of these guys have been getting yelled at a lot in recent seasons. Tennessee was 3-8 ATS last year. Penn State was 8-14 ATS in 2003-04, then 4-7 ATS this year.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

55% that the game goes Over this low total because the passing either leads to offensive points, or cheap points from field position after interceptions.

45% that we see the 16-13 type game that will have us yelling at BOTH coaches regardless of our efforts to avoid that in the first board game of the New Year.

S.H. Austin

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