Tennessee and Northwestern both ended the season on five-game winning streaks, but the two schools' paths to get there were about as different as their histories.
The Vols lost four games by a combined 17 points and two overtimes, nursing a 3-4 record heading into the final five games of the season. The Wildcats, on the other hand, stormed out of the gate to win five straight games, including an opening-game victory in Evanston over eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford which serves as the best win of Outback Bowl teams. After a dominating 27-0 win over Minnesota, Pat Fitzgerald's team was waxed by both Iowa and Michigan by a combined score of 78-10, temporarily halting Northwestern's impressive start.
Both teams found themselves looking intrinsically at how to right the ship in totally different scenarios. For Jones, it meant making sure his players stayed bought in to the scheme despite magnfied levels of adversity.
"A lot of times you can learn much more from losses," Jones said at a joint press conference Tuesday. "Those are all learning opportunities. You learn through adversity. Sometimes when you win, things are swept under the table, but it really comes down to character, the character that you have in your football program — the competitive character that you have."
Tennessee proved to have that competitive character in spades, reeling off five consecutive victories despite playing under a microscope.
"A lot of times, particularly being in Knoxville, you can let the noises, the distractions creep in, and I was really proud of our players, the way they responded, and they had no choice," Jones said. "If you're a competitor, if you're a fighter, you're going to get up every day."
Northwestern took a forgive and forget approach after its first two losses of the season, choosing to push the defeats out of the players' and coaches' minds to focus on finishing the season the right way.
"You've got to flush it," Fitzgerald said. "That's what we did. You've got to flush it. You've got to move on, and you've just got to have a short memory, and you've got to learn from the experiecnes and you can't duplicate it."
The two teams will meet in Tampa as unfamiliar foes that faced familiar scenarios as the second half of the season progressed. How both teams handled it proves that this 30th edition of the Outback Bowl might mirror the electricity both teams finished with.
"I'm just proud of the way our players responded," Jones said. "They had gut-wrenching losses, but we stayed the course, we stayed together, and both teams are on a five-game winning streak. I think it's a credit to leadership on both teams."
Tennessee received a special visit from an 11-time Pro Bowler Tuesday when former Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Derrick Brooks came to speak to the team before its practice at the University of Tampa.
Brooks won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2003 and was named the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2002.
"I know he made a lasting impression on a number of our players, our coaches, and again, just his values for what he stands for, his character, his work ethic," Jones said. "You're talking about one of the greatest players to ever play the game. His competitiveness, just talked about the importance of team and really life lessons, and this is one of the opportunities, again, being in postseason play, that it's more than football. It's about preparing young men for life."
Jones' relationship with Brooks extends back to his time in Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers Ring of Honor recipient discussed the importance of being a good person along with playing tough-minded football.
"No matter what, whether it's football or in the business world or what have you, special people have a different edge to themselves," Jones said. "They have a little something special about them, and that he could pour some of that out onto our football team was very, very special for us."
Northwestern and Tennessee haven't played each other since the 1997 Citrus Bowl, so it's not surprising that neither team knows much about the other. But after watching each other's games and poring over film, both coaches have found that their Outback Bowl opponents mirror other foes they've faced.
Pat Fitzgerald sees a combination of several Big 10 teams in the way Tennessee plays physical defense up front combined with a quarterback who can beat you with his legs just as much as with his arm.
"The secondary of Michigan, probably the front of Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State that were very, very physical, the linebackers like the Michigans and the Penn States and the Iowas that are physical," Fitzgerald said of Tennessee.
"Up front the Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan offensive lines that were really, reall physical this year. I don't know if we've seen a back as big (as Jalen Hurd), and quarterback-wise, probably (Josh Dobbs is) a lot like (Nebraska quarterback) Tommy Armstrong, but has really done a terrific job taking care of the football."
Butch Jones sees a mix of Arkansas and Oklahoma in the way Northwestern pounds the ball and plays possession football.
"(They) have a lot of similarities to Arkansas in terms of mentality, toughness, the ability to run the football, stop the run. A little bit of Oklahoma in terms of scheme-wise offensively and some different things."