With the Tennessee Volunteers destroying the Northwestern Wildcats, 45-6, in the Outback Bowl on Friday, it's tempting to talk about the Vols' chances of winning a mediocre SEC East in 2016. And it's just as tempting to repeat a paragraph from this site almost exactly a year ago, after Tennessee dismantled Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
It's infamously dangerous to read too much into bowl games, one-off postseason exhibition contests where travel arrangements, motivation and any number of intangibles can influence the outcome. But even taking all those caveats into account, Tennessee's walloping of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl seems to be as clear a sign as any that the Volunteers will be a factor in the SEC East race next year, and likely for a few years after that.
There are other reasons besides the win in this year's Outback Bowl to think that Tennessee will be a player in the division next year. But a 39-point victory against a 10-win team -- however dubious that distinction might be in Northwestern's case -- is likely to be a key talking point in the offseason promotion in Tennessee.
In part because the Volunteers did look incredibly impressive in Tampa on Friday. The defense was particularly dominant. Northwestern's quarterbacks went a combined 14-of-33 passing for 129 yards yards and four interceptions. The Wildcats were limited to 3.6 yards a carry on the ground. Tennessee gave up a few 15-plus yard plays, but that's about the only nit that can be picked.
The Volunteers offense, meanwhile, churned out 420 total yards and went 11-for-21 on third and fourth down. The rushing game gained 226 yards on 53 carries, and 248 yards on 50 attempts if you remove sacks. Jalen Hurd led the way with 24 carries for 130 yards. Joshua Dobbs continued to show flashes of brilliance and room to grow, going 14-of-25 passing for 166 yards while running for 48 yards and two touchdowns on 12 rushing attempts (or 61 yards on 10 non-sack carries).
Even if you remove this game from the equation for a moment, though, Tennessee still cuts the profile of a contender next year. The Volunteers lost to playoff team Oklahoma in overtime, SEC East winner Florida by one in a fluky game (when Florida was playing arguably its best football), Arkansas by four and national title game favorite Alabama by five. Combine that with the fact that Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina will all be breaking in new coaches in already average-looking division, and it's hard to make a case for Tennessee to not be, at worst, one of the two co-favorites in the East.
Take the Outback Bowl result with a grain of salt if you want; that's probably the wise thing to do. But the impressive showing on Friday was just one data point in the case for Tennessee in 2016. There are a lot more where that came from.