I’m pretty open about whether I have a good feel for a game and feel confident in my prediction. And the full disclosure for this one is that I don’t – not at all. How can you, really? These two teams have no mutual opponents, different styles, different conferences, different levels of experience and both have been somewhat up-and-down this season.
What I do know is that Iowa is the more experienced team by a mile. The Hawkeyes’ depth chart is littered with upperclassmen and 17 of their 22 starters have played in a bowl game before. You probably have heard the numbers on Tennessee by now…23 freshmen who played this year and nobody on the roster that has appeared in a bowl game before.
But experience isn’t the only factor. I think motivation can be in many bowl scenarios, and I believe UT is more excited to be in Jacksonville than is Iowa. Maybe that isn’t fair, but it is fair to say that UT would’ve probably taken this opportunity if offered before the season, while I’m not so sure that Iowa would’ve. I haven’t been around Iowa a ton this week, but I have seen a Tennessee team that appears to be excited for this opportunity.
Still, just being motivated and excited won’t be enough. The Vols will have to execute and they’ll have to be more two-dimensional on offense than they were at Vanderbilt. Though missing a few key weapons, Tennessee needs to be more efficient in the passing game. Joshua Dobbs doesn’t need to light Iowa up, but getting 200 yards, avoiding sacks and taking care of the football would go a long way in helping the Vols win. That would open up some room in the running game – creating a lot of opportunities for Hurd, Marlin Lane and for Dobbs himself to carry the ball.
Defensively, the key for Tennessee will be not letting Iowa control the line of scrimmage with their talented offensive tackles Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal. It will be a huge test for defensive ends Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett. They don’t have to win every rep, but the Vols will need those two to makes some plays.
I like UT’s edge on special teams. The Vols hold an advantage in virtually every important special teams category and I think Tennessee’s overall edge in speed will show up here. Perhaps Tennessee makes a big play or two in this area that can be the difference.
This is a four-quarter football game in my mind and could go either way. Special teams or turnover margin could be the difference. The numbers say that Tennessee has the edge in those areas. Iowa might just maul Tennessee at the point of attack and be too much for the Vols, but I’l predict that this motivated young UT team comes away with a close win. Pick: Tennessee 28-24
MVP: Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
It’s no huge secret that Iowa has struggled against running quarterbacks this season. Dobbs will be a huge test for Iowa’s defense, even without some of his top targets healthy. Vanderbilt wasn’t a great game for him in terms of throwing the ball. The injuries at receiver and the lack of protect certainly didn’t help, but the sophomore also didn’t look as comfortable throwing. He needs to get that confidence back, and I think some time off and a warmer climate might help him do that. But even if he’s not completely clicking in that area, he should be able to do enough with his feet to hurt the Hawkeyes. If he can get 200 yards passing, 60 rushing, a couple of touchdowns and take care of the ball, the Vols will have a great chance to win and he may take home the MVP trophy.
Well, it’s finally here. After what seems like a lifetime of being kept out of the postseason, the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team will take the field tomorrow against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the TaxSlayer Bowl. If you are a fan of the Vols, then just take a second to enjoy that fact right now.
Ok, moving on. This is a strange game for a lot of reasons. Iowa isn’t even in the top half of teams that Tennessee has faced this season from a pure talent standpoint, but that doesn’t mean that this game is a walk for the Vols. Iowa is tough, gritty, disciplined and strong. They are an extremely experienced football team who knows how to win, and won’t likely be caught off guard by anything that Tennessee will throw at them on either side of the ball.
But being prepared for what a team will do and stopping them from doing it are two completely different things. Can Tennessee use their talent advantage on offense to create big plays? Can they win battles in the trenches on defense to allow the back seven to impact the game? If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’ then the Vols could be in business tomorrow.
On defense, Tennessee will have to keep Iowa from getting in a groove when they run the football. The Hawkeyes will try to get their ground game clicking early and often, largely electing to run behind their All-American right tackle and Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. Tennessee’s best bet is to win the battle on first down and force Iowa into passing situations – where Tennessee should have a big edge in athleticism. As good as Scherff and company are as run-blockers, Tennessee should be able to generate some pressure on Iowa’s quarterbacks off the edge with the speed of Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt.
On offense, Tennessee’s speed advantage and recently regained health at key spots should give the Vols multiple opportunities to hit some big plays. Iowa has struggled all season long when facing mobile quarterbacks, and Joshua Dobbs may be the most dangerous dual threat signal caller that the Hawkeyes have seen all season. This should open up some lanes for a fully recovered Jalen Hurd and a much healthier Marlin Lane on the ground, but could also open passing lanes as Iowa defensive backs get caught watching Dobbs and lose sight of Vol pass-catchers. Dobbs has looked incredibly accurate all week during practices and could be in for a nice day through the air if the receivers can do their job.
I like experienced football teams, and Iowa is an experienced football team. But Tennessee is more talented and, frankly, I think that this game means more to Tennessee’s coaches and players that it does to Iowa’s. The crowd will be 80% orange and I think this young Volunteer squad will feed off of that energy all game long. I don’t think Tennessee will just walk all over Iowa, but I do think that they’ll play well enough to get the win. Pick: Vols 31-21
MVP: Tennessee WR Von Pearson
If this week of practice is any type of indicator, then Von Pearson is back to 100-percent. The Vol wideout suffered a high ankle sprain against Arkansas State and never really looked like he regained his preseason form during the regular season. Pearson was without any form of ankle brace this week during practice and was extremely talkative, which, as his coaches would attest, means that he is feeling confident. Iowa’s secondary is extremely disciplined, but Pearson’s athleticism will give him the opportunity to break tackles, make defenders miss and turn short catches into big gains in this game. I don’t think that 100+ total yards yards and a touchdown with a jaw-dropping catch or run is out of the question for Pearson in this game now that he is healthy, so he’s my pick to take home MVP honors.
This is a brutally tough game to pick. In fact, I’ve wrestled with it all week. There’s no doubt that the Vols finished the season better than the Hawkeyes and they should be the more motivated team. Tennessee closed the season with a 3-1 record while Iowa lost three of their last four. Tennessee’s lone loss in November came by one possession to an 11-win Missouri team – that Tiger team dominated the line of scrimmage against the Vols. That’s the key to the game for me. The Vols don’t have to win the battle in the trenches, but they can’t get dominated. Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri and Ole Miss all dominated UT’s offensive line and Tennessee lost to all of those teams.
Fortunately for the Vols, Iowa doesn’t have an explosive defensive line. The Hawkeye defense ranks 80th in tackles for loss (the Vols are 19th) and 63rd in sacks (UT is 19th). They shouldn’t dominate the line which should give Tennessee’s young, but talented, offense time to work. Iowa is 0-4 against mobile quarterbacks this season and has allowed them to run for 5.5 yards per carry. The Vols relied on Dobbs’ legs to carry them to a win over Vanderbilt when nothing else was working. They’ll have to be more diverse than that against Iowa, but Dobbs should have a chance to make several big plays on the ground if the need arises.
If the Vols are given time to work, Hurd and Dobbs should get things going on the ground by attacking the perimeter, much like they did against South Carolina and Kentucky. A word of caution, tough – Iowa has a top-20 defense and the Vols haven’t beaten a team with such a highly rated defense this season. The young Vol offense will unquestionably have to play one of their best games of the season to pull off the victory.
Defensively, UT’s explosive defensive front will be tested. Iowa has one of the better offensive lines in the nation and Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett won’t find impact plays easy to come by. Iowa doesn’t do a ton that will scare Tennessee offensively, but UT can’t let them own time of possession. That starts with winning on first down and putting them in clear passing situations.
All year, I’ve used Dave Bartoo’s talent rankings in my picks. He averages the recruiting rankings (of every service) of the last four classes for every team to make his rankings. Talent, as Bartoo will tell you, is the greatest predictor of winners and losers in college football. Tennessee ranks 15th while Iowa stands at 42nd – just two spots ahead of Vanderbilt. Tennessee’s losses have come to the 1st (Alabama), 5th (Florida), 6th (Georgia), 11th (Oklahoma), 22nd (Ole Miss) and 39th (Missouri) ranked teams in regards to talent.
The Vols have wins over two teams with more raw talent than Iowa – South Carolina(16th) and Kentucky (37th). Those teams don’t have as much experience as the Hawkeyes, though, and the Vols have struggled to win close games against more veteran teams.
All that to say – this should be a very close, four quarter game if both teams show up. Tennessee hasn’t been able to get over the hump in close games against veteran teams and Iowa hasn’t been able to handle teams with talent like the Vols. In fact, Tennessee, according to Bartoo’s rankings, will be the most talented team the Hawkeyes have faced this year. Nebraska, a team Iowa lost to 37-34 in overtime, ranks 24th in Bartoo’s rankings and was the most talented team Iowa faced this year.
I’ve got to stick with my preseason prediction of a 7-6 record for Tennessee. This is a good matchup for a young Vol team that should want it more and will have an edge in talent. Pick: Tennessee 27-24
MVP: Tennessee Quarterback Joshua Dobbs
It’s time for Dobbs to have another big game after struggling against Missouri and Vanderbilt. Iowa hasn’t handled athletic quarterbacks well and Dobbs will be the most athletic QB they’ve faced. He needs to be more consistent with his throws than he was against Vanderbilt and, if the last few weeks of practice are any indication, he will.