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Tennessee Football Preview: Vols Battle Stout Iowa Defense in Citrus Bowl Match-Up

Tennessee vs Iowa in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl. Photos via team websites, Citrus Bowl logo via bowl website.

The Opponent: Established in 1847, the University of Iowa is the oldest university in the state. It was founded less than two months after Iowa earned its statehood. The term Hawkeye first appeared in the novel The Last of the Mohicans, given as a nickname for the Delaware Indians. Like most things, the white man stole the term away from the Native Americans as Iowa is officially known as the Hawkeye State. Iowa has been coached by Kirk Ferentz since 1999, now easily the longest-tenured head coach in FBS football. Ferentz is 196-118 all-time at Iowa, with two Big Ten titles. Tennessee is 2-1 all-time versus Iowa. Butch Jones blasted the Hawkeyes in the 2015 Tax Slayer Bowl in their last meeting. The legendary Hayden Fry bested Johnny Majors in the school’s first-ever meeting in the 1982 Peach Bowl.

Are they any Good?: That is a regular question in this column, but a popular national question when it comes to Iowa football this season. The short answer is yes, Iowa is a good football team. The Hawkeyes won ten regular season games in the Big Ten and are ranked inside the Top 20. Much like Tennessee though, it is fair to question who they really beat. Iowa has a trio of victories against 7-5 opponents in Iowa State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. What makes this season’s Iowa team so controversial is their moribund offense. The Hawkeyes average just 16.6 points per game, and only 13.1 ppg in conference games. The flip side is Iowa’s defense is only giving up 13.2 points per game, ranked Top 5 nationally. It is not always the prettiest football, but Iowa is 6-1 in one-possession games this season.

What will this tell us about Tennessee?: These second-tier bowl games always end up telling us which team wants to be there more. That can be a very tough mindset to predict, but motivation and desire usually go a long way in these bowl games. On top of that, this game should tell us more about Tennessee’s 2024 team. Clearly, that starts with Nico Iamaleava making his first career start for Tennessee. Dylan Sampson and Cam Seldon will also feature in the backfield without Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small. On defense, Tennessee’s secondary will have several fresh faces with the departures of Doneiko Slaughter, Tamarion McDonald, and several others. It will be easy to overreact to this result one way or another. That is typically what happens with bowl games. I do expect Monday’s game to tell us a little about the 2024 Vols, but it will not render any sort of definite verdict.

What does Vegas say?: This line opened with Tennessee -7 and jumped as high as -8.5. After the announcement that Joe Milton would be opting out, the line dropped to -6.5. The Over/Under is always the more interesting number with Iowa. It appears settled in at 35.5, which is the highest number we have seen for an Iowa game since early October. The Under has hit in eight straight Hawkeye games, and eleven overall for the season. That 35.5 is by far the lowest game total Tennessee has seen all season. The Vols finished the regular season 6-6 ATS, whereas Iowa was 6-6-1.

More from RTI: Everything Nico Iamaleava Said Before His First Career Start

Matchup to watch on Defense: Tackle. I will keep it simple because this has been a fairly simple Iowa offense this season. What began as the Drive to 325 for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, stalled out at just 216 total points. That lackluster output forced Kirk Ferentz to force out his own son. However, the younger Ferentz will be coaching in the Citrus Bowl, presumably calling plays as well. Tennessee needs to play simple fundamental football against this Iowa offense. By that, I mean don’t give a bad offense cheap plays. That starts with sound tackling, which is not always easy after taking a month off. Tennessee finished the season ranked 2nd in the SEC in run defense, allowing just 113.75 yards per game. The Vols have to feel very good about their chances if they can make Iowa a one-dimensional offense. In its three losses, Iowa’s offense has been held to under 1.0 yards per carry and scored 10 total points. Hawkeye quarterback Deacon Hill is averaging just 116 yards passing per start. He has only gone over 120 yards passing twice this season. It is a passing game that is completing less than 50% of its passes, and just 5.0 yards per attempt. The Hawkeyes’ leading receiver is tight end Erick All, who has not played a game since October 14th. Simply put, Iowa’s passing game has been horrendous this season. Given the time off, and the fact that he has already been fired, I would expect to see some offensive trickery from Ferentz. Why not? Tennessee has to stay focused and make clean defensive plays regardless. That starts with tackling. The Vols do not want to be the one team that makes this Iowa offense look competent.

Matchup to watch on Offense: Tight windows and taking your shots. As bad as the Iowa offense has been, their defense has been every bit as excellent. The Hawkeyes have given up just 18 plays of 20+ yards on the season, including only one run of 20+ yards. That one was to a Western Michigan QB as well. Iowa will almost exclusively play zone defense, and mostly do that from a base 4-3 formation. The Hawkeyes are extremely disciplined in this zone. This is going to force Nico Iamaleava to throw into tight windows that will only be open for split seconds. The Iowa defenders all do a really nice job of keeping their eyes trained on the opponent’s quarterback while in coverage. It allows them to break hard on throws, and gang tackle after completions. This is going to make Nico’s eyes nearly as important as his arm in this game. The young quarterback can not telegraph passes. Can Tennessee scheme up some trickery between Nico’s eyes and the play-action game? Iowa’s safeties are asked to help a lot in the run game. Sebastian Castro and Quinn Schulte are third and fourth on the team in tackles. Can Tennessee bait those safeties down in run support in order to open up the downfield passing game? That would certainly create some passing lanes deep downfield. Against this zone defense, I would expect short throws and long throws. I don’t know that we will see much in the 10 to 15-yard range, which probably suits Tennessee’s play-calling. Expect to see plenty of screens and slants. I also imagine we will see Dylan Sampson and Cam Seldon fairly involved in the passing game. Then look for the shots downfield. Can a player like Squirrel White simply take the top off the Iowa zone defense? The Vols have to use speed to put pressure on the Iowa defensive backs. Force them to break that eye discipline and turn to run with you. Clearly, Tennessee will want to use an effective ground game to stay on schedule in terms of down and distance. That is even more critical with a young quarterback against a great defense. For Tennessee’s offense to be successful though, they need to try to stretch the field on a few big passing plays. The Vols need to be patient and disciplined against this Iowa defense, but also be ready to take their shots.

Fun Fact: I highlighted the first and last meetings between these two schools at the top of this column. However, this meeting will be only the second time both programs have met as ranked opponents. The first was the 1987 Kick-Off Classic at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. It was the season opener for both schools and a rematch between legendary coaches Hayden Fry and Johnny Majors. The Hawkeyes were led by hulking quarterback Dan McGwire, whose older brother Mark was just wrapping up his Rookie of the Year campaign with the Oakland Athletics. Considered an afterthought by most entering the season, Tennessee was led by redshirt freshman Reggie Cobb. Cobb’s 138 yards rushing complimented the quarterback play from Jeff Francis and helped keep the Vols within punching distance late in the game. Phil Reich was the unlikeliest of heroes for Tennessee. The placekicker earned a scholarship that day with his two late field goals propelling the Vols to a 23-22 win. Tennessee finished that season 10-2, ranked 14th in the final AP poll. Iowa finished at 10-3, ranked 16th. Mark McGwire’s 49 home runs stood as the rookie record for 30 years before Aaron Judge hit 52 in 2017.

So What Happens?: I have to reiterate that second and third-tier bowl games are so hard to predict. That fact is further complicated by a Tennessee side featuring a number of fresh faces stepping into starting roles, most notably Nico Iamaleava. The positive side to all the fresh faces is motivation should not be in question. Tennessee has a lot of guys who have been patiently waiting for their chance, and recognize how precious these chances can be. That is especially true in the transfer portal era. The negative side is the Volunteers will be going up against a very stout Iowa defense. I expect the Hawkeyes to be motivated as well. Iowa has been forced to be the punchline of way too many jokes this season for a 10-win team. I believe two seemingly conflicting thoughts to both be true. Iowa has endured far more lampooning than it deserves. At the same time, I don’t think this is a very good football team. With all due respect to the defense and special teams, you can not be considered a very good team when your offense is that bad. The Hawkeyes will make it fairly ugly though. Iowa punter Tory Taylor is an All-American and the NCAA leader in single-season punting yardage. Taylor is a true weapon for a team that loves to play field position. Given a full month to scheme, I think Tennessee will find a way to score a few offensive touchdowns. It will be uneven going for Nico and this Tennessee offense though. That will include several three and outs. Iowa’s defensive line does a very good job playing two-gap technique. That frees up linebackers like Jay Higgins to be very effective against the run. All of this will make it tough for Tennessee’s patchwork offensive line to get a consistent push. I do expect Tennessee to find a few chunk plays though. The Vols would be best served to score early in this game, before Iowa has a chance to adjust to their offensive tempo. Tennessee’s opening drive success rate has been outstanding under Josh Heupel, and that will need to continue on Monday. Defensively, I won’t be surprised to see Iowa meet or exceed their season-scoring average in this game. I have to believe those extra practices will make some difference for this Iowa offense. However, I like Tennessee’s pass rush to force Deacon Hill into at least one turnover. That will be key in an ugly, low-scoring affair. It won’t be a game anyone wants to watch again, but the final score will be Vols 23, Hawkeyes 17

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