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Anonymous SEC Coach Praises Tennessee and Nico Iamaleava, Puts Vols on the Outside Looking In

Tennessee Football Nico Iamaleava
KNOXVILLE, TN – November 04, 2023 – Quarterback Nico Iamaleava #8 of the Tennessee Volunteers after the football game between the UConn Huskies and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics.

An anonymous SEC football coach believes that while Tennessee has some work to still do on the defensive side of the ball, the coaching staff’s ability to get the most out of new quarterback Nico Iamaleava and new offensive weapon Chris Brazzell will have the Vols right out on the outside of the 12-team College Football Playoffs conversation to start the year.

Athlon Sports released their annual SEC football anonymous coaches rundown over the weekend, spilling out secretive thoughts about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the conference football lineup. With how eventual of an offseason it was – Nick Saban retiring, Mark Stoops/Texas A&M fallout, Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC – there’s no lack of storylines or topics for opposing coaches to anonymously sink their teeth into.

There’s no indication of who is saying what, and besides some rivalries that are kept intact, there’s not even an SEC East and SEC West divide to separate some teams or keep some teams on people’s minds more than others. It’s an even playing field amongst the 16 teams and Athlon Sports has the latest on each.

There are four anonymous quotes on Tennessee’s 2024 team, which we’ll split into offense, defense, and overall. Note: It’s unclear whether these are independent thoughts from the same person or multiple people commenting on the Vols.


From Athlon: “That staff thinks Nico [Iamaleava] will be the best quarterback they’ve had in that system, and when they have a QB they’re confident in, they’re as good as anyone on that side of the football.” 

From Athlon: “The question is going to be what they put around him this season; they don’t have an elite wideout or obvious target, but the Tulane transfer [Chris Brazzell II] is pretty decent.”

The immediate thing that stands out is the apparent high praise for Iamaleava despite him only having one true start during his freshman season with Tennessee. Looking closely, though, the high praise can also be taken as just the coach’s acknowledgment that Tennessee clearly likes what they have.

It’s nonetheless true. Tennessee does have a quarterback that excites the coaching staff and the players and has the trust of people inside of the building. The word around spring camp was that while Iamaleava had already proven his talent throwing the football, he really worked hard to win over the team from a communication standpoint, drawing praise but also welcoming challenges from his coaches and teammates as the Vols’ signal-caller.

It’s also true that Tennessee’s overall success (although a small time frame) can be paralleled with the quarterback’s statistical success. In year one under Heupel, Tennessee achieved a 7-5 record with Hendon Hooker, a solid quarterback that had the fit for the Vols’ offensive system. But when Hooker took a major step forward and became a Heisman contender in year two, Tennessee also stepped up to the tune of a 10-2 record. When Tennessee’s quarterback play took a step down to Joe Milton in 2023, the Vols still earned success but fell back to 8-4. It’s a small sample size, but anyone who has watched Tennessee football understands that quarterback play is the key to the Ferarri.

A more detailed answer comes from the coach referring to Tennessee’s lack of a true elite wide receiver. And, again, for the most part true. Tennessee has collective talent across the wide receiver room with Squirrel White, Bru McCoy, Dont’e Thornton, Chris Brazzell, and Mike Matthews. But while each player has a specific and unique talent that they bring to the table, none is entering the 2024 season as one of the nation’s projected elite wide receivers. Collectively, though, they do their job. Will Tennessee be hurt without a truly elite wide receiver in 2024? While it helps to have one, no. Tennessee has speed, physicality, route-running, explosiveness, and reliability spread out among the room and has a coaching staff that has proven to take advantage of the skillset that each player brings. The Vols should be fine setting up each for success with Iamaleava behind center.


From Athlon: “Defensively, they’re not at the level of the national title-caliber programs in this league, but they’re better than when Josh [Heupel] took over. The floor is higher here, but they have question marks in the secondary.” 

Again, the first sentence is objectively true.

Let’s look at the stats:

Tennessee Team Defense National Ranking (Points Allowed):

  • 2023 – No. 22
  • 2022 – No. 37
  • 2021 – No. 90


CFB National Champion Defensive Ranking (Points Allowed)

  • 2023 – Michigan – No. 1
  • 2022 – Georgia – No. 5
  • 2021 – Georgia – No. 1
  • 2020 – Alabama – No. 13
  • 2019 – LSU – No. 33
  • 2018 – Clemson – No. 1
  • 2017 – Alabama – No. 1
  • 2016 – Clemson – No. 10
  • 2015 – Alabama – No. 2
  • 2014 – Ohio State – No. 26


Looking at the stats and two things are true. One is that Tennessee has significantly improved at keeping opponents out of the endzone over Heupel’s first three years. While the Vols can still be prone to letting up big yardage throughout games, Tennessee has grown and evolved to make the endzone a tougher place to reach in the last few years – tougher, not impossible.

But it’s also true that historically, throughout the entirety of the college football playoffs, the national championship contenders are strong defensive teams. Out of all the championships in the College Football Playoffs era, eight of the ten have been ranked in the Top 13 of defensive points allowed. LSU and Ohio State have proved that truly elite offenses can make up the difference, but most of the teams on this list had a Top 20 ranking on both sides of the ball.

Tennessee’s defense is improving, but the idea that they are right on the outside of contenders looking in is a pretty reasonable thing to say based on where they were in 2023. Tennessee overhauled parts of their defense this year (*cough* the secondary *cough*) but do return a few key pieces that could be difference makers when it comes to run-stopping or the quarterback attack.

That leads into the final thing that was anonymously said about Tennessee according to Athlon Sports.


From Athlon: “Put them right outside of the playoff contenders for now, but the quarterback could be really special.”

We’ve talked about both of those aspects already but again, it does feel like a reasonable assessment. It doesn’t feel like this was a coach (or coaches) that was out to get Tennessee or slam them down like an elaborate targeting recruiting attack.

They hit the high points: Tennessee is big on Nico Iamaleava, the weapons added could make a difference, and the defense has improved but isn’t necessarily proven to be playoffs-contender level quite yet.

That also lines up with where Tennessee has been projected coming out of the spring slate. Mark Schlabach has Tennessee at No. 15 in his post-spring power rankings for ESPN while Dennis Dodd has Tennessee at No. 16 in his post-spring rankings for CBS Sports. Additionally, Tennessee’s SP+ ranking is No. 16 according to ESPN.

All indications point to Tennessee starting the season as a team right on the outside of the 12-team playoff but could work their way in with big opportunities on the board such as Oklahoma, NC State, Alabama, and Georgia.

Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for more Tennessee football coverage throughout the offseason.

To see the full anonymous SEC coaches article from Athlon Sports, click here.

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