The Vols are headed to Jacksonville, Fla., on Jan. 2 to face the Iowa Hawkeyes (7-5) in the TaxSlayer Bowl…in a move almost no one saw coming. The game will kick at 3:20 p.m. ET on ESPN. Tennessee will have a chance to win its first bowl game since the 2008 Outback Bowl (which followed the 2007 season). How do the Vols matchup with the Hawkeyes? Here are a few quick thoughts.
Offense: Iowa is a below average team offensively. They rank 69th nationally among the 128 FBS teams in total offense at 398.3 yards per game. They also rank 79th in yards per play (5.4). Iowa also stands at 70th nationally in points per game (28.3). The Hawkeyes run a fairly balanced offensive system – ranking 73rd in rushing offense (156.33 yards per game) and 53rd in passing offense (242.0 yards per game).
They’re more efficient through the air than on the ground – ranking 87th in yards per rush (3.92) and 59th in yards per pass (7.2). Their quarterbacks rush the ball over five times per game, but typically only do so in short yardage situations or to keep the defense honest. Don’t expect any extremely long runs from them.
What’s the opposite of explosive? That’s what Iowa is on offense. They rank 82 nationally in plays longer than 10 yards from scrimmage (the Vols are 70th, for comparison) and 80th in plays of 20+ yards.
How do the Hawkeyes compare to Tennessee’s other opponents? Kentucky, a team the Vols handled, ranks nine spots behind the Hawkeyes in total offense (78th) and is similarly balanced.
A disciplined effort from the Vol defense – a unit which ranks 35th nationally in total defense – should slow down their attack enough to put the Vols in position to win this game. Iowa’s offensive line was decent this season, but Tennessee’s pass rush should cause all kinds of problems for them.
Defense: This is where Iowa, on paper, gets tricky. They rank 19th in the nation in total defense (334.5 yards per game), one spot behind Georgia. They’re 36th in yards allowed per play (5.19), just four spots ahead of the Vol defense. The Vols are averaging just 4.82 yards per play this season on offense and Iowa will pose a tough test for a banged up and young Vol offensive unit.
The Hawkeyes have struggled against the run this year – Dobbs and Hurd will have a chance to win this game on the ground. Iowa ranks 70th nationally in yards allowed per rush (4.29) and 59th in yards rushing allowed per game (158.75). Tennessee has given up fewer yards per rush (4.05) than Iowa. If the Vols keep the ball on the ground and control the clock, you have to like Tennessee’s chances.
Conversely, the Vols can’t fall in love with the pass. The Hawkeyes rank 8th nationally in pass defense (175.8) and 24th in yards allowed per pass attempt (6.4). Tennessee should unquestionably run the ball more often than they pass it on January 2nd.
The Vols should win the turnover battle. Iowa hasn’t turned teams over at a high rate this year – ranking 106th in turnovers forced (the Vols are 38th in the same category). They rank 102 in turnover margin – the Vols are 56th.
Teams that rush the passer extremely well should scare the Vols – Iowa isn’t one of them. The Hawkeye defense ranks 80th in tackles for loss (the Vols are 19th) and 63rd in sacks (UT is 19th).
Overall: According to Sagarin’s rankings, Tennessee ranks 29th while Iowa ranks 43rd. Tennessee has played the No. 7 schedule in the nation while Iowa has played the No. 59 schedule. Statistically, the Vols have the better rushing defense, they’ve been better at taking care of the ball, they’ve been more explosive on offense, they’ve played the tougher schedule, they win the turnover battle more often, they have the better pass rush, they make more explosive plays on both sides of the ball and they should have more overall talent on the field.
Iowa struggled with mobile quarterbacks this season. They faced four quarterbacks in conference play that rushed for over 400 yards on the year – the Hawkeyes went 0-4 in those games and surrendered 269 yards rushing to those quarterbacks, allowing them to rush for 5.5. yards per carry and 67 yards per game. Joshua Dobbs is averaging 78.6 yards rushing this season. As long as the Vol rushing attack shows up (read: Dobbs and Hurd are healthy), Tennessee should have a great shot at winning this game.