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RTI Game Predictions: Tennessee vs. Iowa

Nico Iamaleava throws 1st touchdown as a Tennessee Volunteer. Photographed by Jackson McCarter/Rocky Top Insider

Tennessee football concludes its 2023 season on the first day of 2024 as the 21st-ranked Vols face No. 17 Iowa in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.

Each week, the RTI team will provide game predictions for Tennessee’s weekly matchup.

We conclude the season with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

More From RTI: Tennessee Announces Uniform Combination For Citrus Bowl

Jack Foster

Bowl season is mostly exciting. It has largely lost its luster due to opt-outs and the transfer portal, but it’s the last chance we all have to consume football for the next nine months.

And for that, everyone should value the bowl games. Let’s dive in.

This game won’t be very exciting. No Iowa football game is. But it’s certainly intriguing.

How will Nico Iamaleava fare in his first career start against an incredible Iowa defense? Will Iowa’s ineptitude in the passing game continue against Tennessee’s inexperienced/depleted secondary?

There’s plenty of storylines to watch in this game. But the bottom line is that this Iowa offense is downright dreadful. And while we’ve seen Tennessee’s defense (mainly secondary) struggle at times, I don’t see the Hawkeyes’ offense suddenly being a threat.

Points will be at a premium in this one, but Tennessee scores more. Part of me thinks I’m underselling Tennessee with this score, but Iowa has held so many teams to so few points.

Give me the Vols by 17, but only two total touchdowns are scored in this one.

Prediction: Tennessee 23, Iowa 6

Ric Butler

It’s that time once again. One more prediction for the 2023 season, one more prediction for the 2023 calendar year.

The 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl is a tough one to predict for the same reason that any bowl game is tough to predict this time of year. In some ways, these bowl games can resemble more of a preview for the next season as opposed to a culmination of the 2023 season. In this game we will have quarterback Nico Iamaleava, running back Cam Seldon, defensive back Jourdan Thomas, and numerous more young players contribute for the Vols that are sure to have a big impact on Tennessee’s 2024 season.

As Matt Reed wrote in his preview, the key to me is not being the first team to allow Iowa’s offense to look competent this season. Iowa’s offense has been bad in nearly all aspects this season but will go up against a Tennessee defense that is missing a key player or two from the season but will have a big mix of young and old players on the field.

Then, we get to the money question. What will Nico Iamaleava look like in his first start? It’s hard to say. The talented quarterback looked good in clean-up duties this season but will face a massive test against this stout Iowa defense. I believe the key to this game is to not start Iamaleava’s Heisman campaign on New Year’s Day. When I say that, I just mean that Tennessee can use its other playmakers and have Iamaleava find his footing while trying to gain ground down the field. Dylan Sampson will be a big part of Tennessee’s offensive success and I believe the most important player of the offense. Sampson stepped up in the receiving game this year and could be a major help for Iamaleava in the short passing game. Tennessee’s offensive line is banged up and while that doesn’t add any confidence to this unit, the Vols will try to keep the Hawkeyes’ pass rush at bay to give their quarterback time to work. Will Tennessee expand the offense with a little bit more creativity or stick to the gameplan that was used for Milton throughout the season? On the first point, I think Tennessee has an opportunity to get creative early into the game with such little tape out there on their freshman quarterback.

Ultimately, I don’t think this will be the prettiest game, and so much of it will be about mustering enough points to win and keeping the Iowa offense in a bad place like they have been all year. I’m going with Tennessee by 10 points… but with a freshman quarterback, even one as talented as Iamaleava is, there are certainly a few options for how this game unfolds on the table.

Prediction: Tennessee 20, Iowa 10

Ryan Schumpert

It will be a very different Tennessee team that takes the field for the Vols in their 2023 finale than the one that took the field four months ago against Virginia. In fact, only 12 of Tennessee’s 22 starters from the season opener are expected to be available against Iowa due to injuries, transfers or opt outs.

Some of that speaks to the crazy times that college football is in while some of it speaks to the turbulent season Tennessee has had. But either way, it brings additional intrigue to the bowl game as an abundance of underclassmen Vols will get extended opportunities in this game.

Iowa is a conundrum. It’s hard to imagine any team with as bad as an offense as the Hawkeyes having as good as a season as they have. But Iowa’s defense has truly been stout and the Hawkeyes know their identity and how they’re going to have success. That’s why Iowa has been so good in close games this season. That’s what worries me about this game for Tennessee. With the Vols’ offensive limitations and their running back opt outs, it is easy to see how Iowa could make this a low scoring game and pull out a narrow victory like they have so often this season.

But so many of those low scoring wins were against very bad Big 10 west offenses. And for as many flaws as Tennessee’s offense has, they are still better than the majority of those offenses and they play a style that will cause Iowa bigger issues than the likes of Purdue and Northwestern. And despite all of Tennessee’s secondary departures, Iowa doesn’t have the passing game to exploit the Vols’ biggest defensive weakness. Tennessee pulls out a win to cap off the 2023 season.

Prediction: Tennessee 24, Iowa 13

Matt Reed

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

Prediction: Tennessee 23, Iowa 17

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