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Des Moines Register’s Dargan Southard Previews Tennessee-Iowa Citrus Bowl Matchup

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Tennessee is looking to cap off its 2023 season on the right football when it faces No. 17 Iowa on New Year’s Day 2024 in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.

Each week this season, Rocky Top Insider has taken you behind the scenes with an interview with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.

In the final rendition of the season, The Des Moines Register Iowa beat writer and Tennessee alum Dargan Southard discusses Iowa’s peculiar season, stout record in close games and much more.

*Some answers have been slightly altered or shortened for clarity

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How did Iowa perform against expectations this season? What is the excitement level around the program entering the Citrus Bowl?

“It was a very peculiar season, a very strange season where the offense was not just bad but wretched and borderline unwatchable for 95% of the season, but they still found a way to win 10 games and not for a controversial punt return call they would have won 11 games and probably are in a New Year’s Six Bowl. It’s been strange to digest this season because the units and their performances are so well defined that it’s hard to judge this team for its entirety. 

You have one unit (the defense) playing on All-Madden level and it’s a legit defense. I’m sure a lot of Tennessee fans will look at Iowa’s Big 10 West schedule and say it just came against a bunch of terrible teams, and it largely did, but I still think the sum is greater than the parts with this defense.

There was a lot of excitement surrounding the offense coming into the year with Michigan quarterback transfer Cade McNamara and he suffered a quad injury in spring practice and then tore his ACL about five games in and they lost both their top tight ends to season ending injuries. The offense did have some hurdles to clear that they never could. Then there was the whole Brian Ferentz element of the season which Iowa fans were certainly happy with the conclusion to that.

I would say Iowa is interesting in that they’re a program that still cares about going to the Citrus Bowl. If you had told Tennessee fans before the year that they would go to the Citrus Bowl I don’t think many people would have been thrilled with that, but Iowa still values going to bowl games and getting bowl wins and the chance to get 11-wins. There’s a decent amount of excitement for the game itself to cap off this very strange year.”

This seems like a very stereotypical Iowa team on paper. Is there an area where reality doesn’t match up with perception?

“No. The numbers and what are on paper are pretty indicative of what this team does. The offense is very much as bad as they indicate. It’s very painful. Very inconsistent. So you feel like it some of Tennessee’s games last season where you’re asking the defense to just get one stop, that’s kind of where Iowa’s offense is. If they can just get into field goal range once or capitalize on a key turnover they can have success. The offense has to have a lot of assistance to produce anything. Now the run game was decent. They have a rotational group there kind of similar to Tennessee’s running back setup— not as good but similar in that it’s two or three guys sharing the workload.

Then the defense is very much a typical Iowa defense in that it’s not loaded with big recruits. It’s not loaded with guys with a bunch of hype but a lot of these guys were instate kids that didn’t have a ton of power five offers besides Iowa. Something that sounds absurd in the SEC liek a walk-on quarterback becoming a starting safety— Iowa has had it happen multiple times since I’ve been covering them. But they’ve been good players.

I would say this season more than any other I’ve covered feels like Iowa is doing business how they like to do it and are usually most successful doing it.”

What makes Iowa’s defense so strong?

“You hear complimentary football but there’s even complimentary football within the defense. You have a secondary that’s a veteran group. There’s a bit of a hole there with Cooper DeJean who if he decides to go to the draft, he’ll probably be a first round pick. Was one of the best cornerbacks in America before breaking his leg in practice in late November. The guy who is filling in for him, Deshaun Lee, has been exposed against Nebraska and Michigan a little bit. There are places to attack in the secondary. But I think the biggest thing they try to do and what Tennessee will try to counter is they don’t give up many explosive plays. That’s with the defense being on the field a ton this year because the offense can’t sustain drives or they turn it over. It’s really going to be interesting to see if Tennessee can break through and hit some of those big plays that are so crucial for them because that’s what Iowa stifles and tries to really take away.”

What’s made Iowa so good in close games this season?

“I think there’s just a comfort level with rolling around in the mud. When the flux of important injuries happened on offense— for so many other college football programs that would be a total shock to the system. If you told a lot of coaches that you’ll be down your starting quarterback and top two pass catchers and you’ll have some running back injuries then that team would have to completely change how it operates. But when that happened for Iowa they were kind of already playing that way. Relying on the defense to do a lot of things and just kind of scraping by on offense. I think it’s just instilled in the culture there and in the makeup of the program that nothing is going to be easy and you’re going to be in close games, you’re going to be in ugly games. I think there’s a real comfort level when Iowa gets in those situations and it’s shown more this year than any other year I’ve been up here because every game has felt like one or two plays could change the outcome of the game. Not that other teams aren’t comfortable playing in close, gross games but Iowa has certainly nailed down that philosophy.”

What’s a key or a few keys for Iowa to get the win?

“Definitely trying to make a freshman quarterback making his first career start making him look like a freshman quarterback making his first career start. Now will that be easy? No. But I think Iowa needs to force a key turnover or have a key special teams play. I think Iowa needs to force at least one or two pivotal turnovers. Not just turnovers but turnovers that set up points or take points off the board for Tennessee.

Then the other thing is adjusting to how Tennessee operates. They obviously don’t see much in the Big 10 West so it’ll be interesting. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is the Broyles Award winner of the best assistant coach in the nation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tennessee hits Iowa early the way that they’ve done to a lot of teams this year and it takes Iowa a second to maybe settle in. One thing that Iowa’s defense has shown is its ability to adjust to what happens early in the game. Offensively, there just has to be a pulse of some sort. Tennessee’s secondary is going to look way different in this game than it did for much of the season. There’s a lot of excitement about those young guys but if Iowa’s offense can produce anything of substance then that’s kind of a bonus— as crazy as that sounds.

It’s really fascinating how these teams got to this point because the way they do business is so different but it’s been successful for both sides.”

Score prediction?

Tennessee 17, Iowa 13

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