- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The bowl season for the SEC kicks off Thursday at 6:40 p.m. ET when Tennessee plays what will amount to a home game in Nashville against North Carolina.
Here’s a quick preview of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl:
WHO TO WATCH: When the regular season ended, Tennessee true freshman Tyler Bray was one of the SEC’s hottest quarterbacks. He threw 12 touchdown passes and only four interceptions during the Vols’ four-game winning streak and also piled up 1,234 passing yards in those four games. A bit of a gunslinger in the Brett Favre mold, Bray has a big arm and isn’t afraid to make the tough throws into tight windows. He’s also pretty crafty in the pocket. And even though he’s only a first-year player, he’s well ahead of his years when it comes to having a feel for where the pressure is coming from and where he needs to go with the football.
WHAT TO WATCH: Tennessee’s defense played better during the four-game winning streak and made several key plays in the finale to hold an explosive Kentucky offense to 14 points. But this will be the Vols’ stiffest test defensively since the South Carolina game on Oct. 30. Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson is back with the team after missing all of the pre-Christmas practices for personal reasons. The Vols will need him at his best. Also, is this defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s last game with the Vols? He’s in play at Texas and could be headed to Austin as the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator after the game.
WHY WATCH: For a while, it looked like we wouldn’t get to see North Carolina and Tennessee play football after Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton pulled the plug on the series earlier this year. The Tar Heels and Vols were scheduled to play in both 2011 and 2012, but Hamilton felt like the schedule was too difficult this early in Derek Dooley’s tenure and paid the penalty to get out of the series. It wasn’t the best PR move for the Vols, and the perception nationally was that they were running from an ACC team. Here’s a chance to get some of their “cred” back and end the season on a five-game winning streak after starting out 2-6.
PREDICTION: Tennessee 27, North Carolina 21. It’s a good mix right now for Tennessee of seniors determined to go out the right way and freshmen eager to build some more momentum heading into the offseason. There have been times in the past when the Vols merely went through the motions at bowl games. Not this year. They’re genuinely excited to be here and will play that way in front of what will be a decidedly orange-coated crowd at sold-out LP Field.