Friday, 3:20 p.m. ET
EverBank Field (67,164) • Jacksonville, Fla.
Series Record: Teams tied at 1-1
Setting the table
For the first time since 2010, Tennessee is set to appear in the postseason. It wasn’t easy getting there. The Vols battled to a 6-6 record, winning three of their final games of the regular season, including a borderline-miraculous comeback win over South Carolina that proved to be crucial in getting the Vols back to the .500 mark for the first time since Derek Dooley’s first season in Knoxville. But the reward was sweet – an appearance in a January bowl game in Florida, the TaxSlayer Bowl, formally known as the Gators Bowl. The Vols will see how they match up against an Iowa squad that had Big 10 championship aspirations this season, but had to settle for a 7-5 season after dropping three of its last four games. The Hawkeyes have a clear edge in experience, but it’s the young and hungry Tennessee team that is the slight Vegas favorite in this one.
Who has the edge?
When Tennessee throws…
Tennessee’s passing game was a wreck at Vanderbilt, becoming almost non-existent in the second half as the Vols had to turn to the ground game to grind out a win over the Commodores. Throwing against an Iowa defense that is top-10 in the nation in passing defense should prove to be an enormous challenge. The good news for Tennessee is that some time off has helped some playmakers such as Pig Howard, Von Pearson and Josh Malone get healed up. The bad news is that another top target, Jason Croom, was lost during bowl prep due to injury and won’t be available on Friday. Iowa’s secondary plays with good discipline and a decent line should be able to get some pressure against UT’s shaky offensive line. If Tennessee can set the pass up with the run, the Vols could have some success, but simply on paper, Iowa has the advantage here. Edge: Iowa
When Tennessee runs…
This is where Tennessee needs to win the game. Iowa’s defensive front isn’t weak per se, but the Vols should have a chance to find some room in the running game against the Hawkeyes’ 57th nationally ranked rushing defense that gives up an average of 158.7 yards per game. Don’t expect the Vols to just turn around and hand it to Jalen Hurd over and over. Iowa has struggled against mobile quarterbacks all season and Joshua Dobbs is coming off a 91-yard rushing performance at Vanderbilt. Look for Tennessee, with no need to preserve Dobbs in the last game of the season, to call his number regularly in addition to mixing in plenty of Hurd, Marlin Lane and maybe even some Devrin Young as well. If the offensive line, which should get a boost from the return of Mack Crowder, can do just a decent job in the run game, the Vols have a chance to move the ball on the ground. Edge: Tennessee
When Iowa throws…
Though there’s been some degree of quarterback controversy between Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard, a Tennessee native, Rudock will get the start and when he’s played this season, he’s been pretty good. The Hawkeyes don’t sling it all over the field, but they average a respectable 242 yards per game passing and Rudock completes over 62% of his passes and takes good care of the football. Getting to him will be key for the Vols. That’s easier said than done with Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal – both NFL prospects – standing in the way at offensive tackle. Tennessee’s athletic defensive ends will give up some size to those two, but should be able to neutralize that somewhat with their speed. If the quarterbacks have enough time, it will be tough for Tennessee’s DBs to stick with guys like Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith for Iowa for long periods of time, but a few big sacks from the likes of Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt could swing this category in UT’s favor. Edge: Even
When Iowa runs…
Physical might be the best way to describe Iowa’s rushing attack. Starting running back Mark Weisman is a load at 240 pounds. He only averages 3.9 yards per attempt, but he had 14 touchdowns in the regular season and can really wear down a defense. Backup Jordan Canzeri has a little more wiggle and both quarterbacks can pull it down at times, though neither is a true dual-threat. But like the passing game, if Iowa’s offensive line controls the line of scrimmage, that will really set the Vols back in this area. Whoever plays inside linebacker, Jakob Johnson or Kenny Bynum, will need to play well. The key will be to keep Iowa behind the sticks, don’t let the Hawkeyes get 4 and 5 yards at a time and put them in third-and-long situations to limit their options. If UT can do that, the Vols will have a chance to control this area. Edge: Tennessee
On special teams…
The Vols have at least a slight edge in nearly every significant special teams category: punting average, field-goal percentage, punt-return average and kickoff-return average. Freshman Evan Berry is one of the best young kickoff returners in the nation and averages more than 7.0 yards per return than does Iowa. Kicker Aaron Medley and punter Matt Darr, at least statistically speaking, give UT an edge in the kicking game. One big play can make or break this area, but looks for the Vols to hold the edge. Edge: Tennessee
What Iowa is thinking
This is almost men against boys. Our depth chart is loaded with experienced juniors and seniors, 17 of our 22 starters have played in a bowl game and our redshirt seniors have been to four bowl games. We’re older, stronger and just more physical than Tennessee. We respect their playmakers, but we’ll own the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and keep them from doing too much. We’re playing for our conference, our pride and to show people that we were better than our 7-5 record indicated this year.
What Tennessee is thinking
The future is now. We can’t win the SEC East with this game, we can’t turn our entire program around in one afternoon and there’s still work to be done, but this can be our statement that we’re going to be a force next year and beyond in college football. We’re rested up after some bumps and bruises and we have our legs back. We’re going to be just too fast and athletic for the Hawkeyes. Iowa has struggled to stop running quarterbacks, so Dobbs can have a big night. We’ve seen physical running backs in the SEC, so we’ll keep the running game under wraps and trust Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt to get enough pressure to make the passing game shaky. We should have the edge in special teams and can maybe block a punt or return a kick for a score as well. This will be a fantastic launching point for our much-anticipated future.
What RTI is thinking
After so much talk of the Vols getting to six wins, it’s almost hard to believe that the bowl itself is here and the Vols have a chance to get win No. 7 and make a statement about their resiliency and give more hope for the future. It’s hard to ignore Iowa’s experience edge. Going back to the Missouri game, we noticed that the Tigers were significantly older at almost every spot and that ended up aiding the Tigers. But Iowa isn’t Missouri and, while the Hawkeyes came close a few times this year, they didn’t beat anybody too impressive in 2015. Vegas has this as a pretty close game with the Vols pulling it out and we tend to agree. Anything can happen in a bowl and Tennessee is far from a lock, but we think that UT has a very good chance on Friday.