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Published Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Tennessee Volunteers to test NU

Last modified at 4:46 a.m. on Wednesday, December 15, 1999

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   By Terry Douglass
The Independent

LINCOLN -- In Tennessee, it appears that the Nebraska football team has saved the best for last.

"I think this is going to be the toughest team we've played all season," Cornhusker wingback Bobby Newcombe said Tuesday at Nebraska's pre-bowl press conference. "It's definitely the toughest defense we've played all season."

No. 3-ranked Nebraska (11-1) will find out if its up to the task when it meets No. 5-ranked Tennessee (9-2) Jan. 2 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at Tempe, Ariz. The 7 p.m. game at Sun Devil Stadium will be televised nationally by ABC.

The Cornhuskers are listed as 4-point favorites by oddsmakers, but Newcombe said experience is on Tennessee's side. The Vols won the 1998 national championship with a victory over Florida State in last year's Fiesta Bowl.

"They've got a lot of players who have played in big games before," Newcombe said. "They know what it takes to win a national championship."

Tennessee will also be looking to avenge a loss in its only previous meeting with the Huskers. Nebraska beat the Vols 42-17 two years ago in the Orange Bowl to send former coach Tom Osborne out a winner in his final game. The victory also capped a 13-0 season and earned NU a share of the 1997 national championship along with Michigan.

Newcombe said the motivation to beat Tennessee is different this time.

"We were playing for more than just the win in that game," Newcombe said of the 1998 Orange Bowl. "We wanted to win it for coach Osborne to send him out right and we wanted to do it impressively.

"This year, we want to go out and make a statement for next year. If we go out there and win significantly, it sets us up in great position for next year."

The Cornhuskers are hopeful of finishing No. 2 -- ahead of the Florida State-Virginia Tech loser -- with a Fiesta Bowl win. However, Nebraska head coach Frank Solich said a victory won't come easy.

"Tennessee is a great football team," Solich said. "You can lose one game and still be a great team. You can lose two games anymore and still be a great football team and that's what I think they have."

Solich said Nebraska's defense will face possibly its toughest test in stopping a Vols offense led by quarterback Tee Martin, who is 22-2 as a starter and has passed for 2,317 yards this season. Martin backed up Peyton Manning the last time the two teams met.

Tennessee's offensive line is anchored by All-American guard Casey Coleman. And the Vols have a pair of talented running backs in Jamal Lewis (816 yards) and Travis Henry (790 yards).

On defense, Tennessee finished the season as the country's seventh-best team against the run, allowing an average of 89.6 yards per game. All-American safety Deon Grant, who tied for the nations lead with nine interceptions, and two-time All-American linebacker Raynoch Thompson will make things difficult for the Nebraska offense.

Solich said the Vols are also strong in special teams play. Tennessee ranks eighth in the country in net punting and 13th in kickoff returns.

"I see them as really a complete football team," Solich said.

Only a 24-20 loss at Texas on Oct. 23 kept Nebraska from earning a shot at Florida State in the Sugar Bowl New Orleans, which serves as this year's Bowl Championship Series title game. The Huskers still had a shot at qualifying late in the season, but lost ground to Virginia Tech in the BCS standings after a narrow 33-30 overtime win at Colorado on Nov. 26. Avenging the loss to Texas, 22-6 in the Big 12 Championship game, wasn't enough to vault NU over the Hokies.

However, Nebraska linebacker Julius Jackson said he and his teammates are looking forward to the Fiesta Bowl.

"We don't feel like we were cheated or anything out of the Sugar Bowl," Jackson said. "We lost a game and both Florida State and Virginia Tech went undefeated. We feel they deserve the chance to play for the national title."

But Jackson said that doesn't mean Nebraska vs. Tennessee isn't an attractive matchup.

"Tennessee is a good team and we're a good team, too," Jackson said. "I feel that we both could beat anybody in the country."

Nebraska split end Matt Davison said the Huskers must win to show that last year's 9-4 season was truly a fluke.

"We want to finish off with a good performance against a great team like Tennessee and really let people know that we're back," Davison said. "We've had a good season, but we think people around the country still have their doubts. We want to show everyone what Nebraska football is all about and get some respect heading into next season."

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