Halfway through the college football season, a Nebraska-Tennessee matchup in the postseason was easily envisioned — in a major bowl.
Entering the second weekend in October, they were top-10 programs. The Cornhuskers would climb to as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, the Volunteers to No. 9.
But the traditional powers couldn’t maintain the pace and find themselves battling in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. and the game is on ESPN.
The second-half slippage for both programs lowers the stakes and the game may turn on which team better manages the disappointment.
Nebraska, 9-3, would love to enter 2017 off a double-digit victory season. But the Cornhuskers are limping into the game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., has been dealing with a hamstring injury for more than a month and his availability is in question.
Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp is out with a knee injury and safety Nate Gerry was ruled ineligible with academic issues.
The Vols, 8-4, defeated their chief rivals this season — Florida and Georgia — but the SEC East favorite didn’t reach the conference title game, and loss to Vanderbilt in the season finale cost them a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett is the game’s player to watch. He leads the SEC in sacks with 12 and tackles for loss with 18 and looms as an NFL Draft first-round pick.
Still, the Vols defense, especially against, the run, was a problem down the stretch. The Vols surrendered more than 600 total rushing yards over the final three games. Missouri rushed for more than 400 yards against the Vols.
The programs have a bowl history. Nebraska defeated the Payton Manning-led Volunteers in the Orange Bowl after the 1997 season and earned a share of the national championship.
Tennessee won the national title for the 1998 season, and the Cornhuskers beat them in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1999 season.
No such glory for either side this time, but a near capacity crowd of 68,000 is expected at Nissan Stadium.