Jim McVay knew what he wanted in this year's Outback Bowl. The bowl president and CEO was hoping to land highly ranked teams that matched up well with one another that would draw both a big crowd and plenty of attention on New Year's Day.
From the joy in McVay's voice as he discussed what both teams brought to the game, it sounds like his team's mission was accomplished.
"Both of these teams are really good football teams and both of them have excellent coaching staffs, so you know what you're going to get with these guys," McVay told InsideTennessee. "Tennessee is just loaded with outstanding talent. These guys, very simply, could have three or four more wins, which would not surprise anybody. They're very talented with several key positions. There's players all over that roster that are dynamic, outstanding players."
There was a long list of criteria involved in picking the Outback Bowl opponents, including team records, how both programs ended the season and the propensity to travel. Tennessee was able to check off every one of those boxes, prompting an invite along with Northwestern. The fact that the Wildcats were highly ranked with a huge win over No. 6 Stanford made this a dream scenario for the Outback Bowl, pitting two ranked teams with five-game win streaks against one another with different key attributes — Tennessee and its enormous fan base coupled with Northwestern's national prestige in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
"That's the key is we've got the Big 10 playing the SEC," McVay said. "You know we're going to get two good football teams. Northwestern, No. 13, 10-2, beat Stanford, beat Wisconsin. This is a football team that loves to play and loves to compete. You look for teams that are deserving. Both teams won their last five games, so they're feeling pretty good about themselves and are looking forward to another big game Jan. 1."
When it comes to the draw of the game, not many bowl destinations can boast the kind of amenities Tennessee and Northwestern will enjoy when they get to Tampa.
"We coined the phrase 'football in paradise' because coming to the Tampa Bay area is really special," McVay told IT. "Raymond James Stadium is the top field in the NFL. The NFL Player's Association voted that this was the top playing surface, so the players are going to love that. The stadium is a lot of fun. We're on the beaches. We have the sunshine ... this is a great trip."
But the real fun will start when the opening whistle blows at noon and the pads begin to crunch under a beaming Florida sun. With the SEC's reputation as the most dominant conference in college football going toe-to-toe with a team from the conference that won the national championship last season, two narratives will collide in Tampa.
"The SEC always says they're better than the Big 10," McVay said. "So you know what? We let them tee it up on New Year's Day, two really good football teams, two great coaching staffs, and we'll figure it out New Year's Day."