It's Football Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. Iowa Hawkeyes Citrus Bowl Preview (1/1/24)

Recently: Tennessee (#21, 8-4, 4-4) ended the 2023 regular season with a 48-24 rout of Vanderbilt on Senior Day back in November. Joe Milton went 22/33 for 383 yards and 4 TD, with another 2 TD on the ground, in what would be his final game for the Vols. Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small also combined for 105 yards in their final game too, as all three players have opted out of the Citrus Bowl, paving the way for Tennessee's next-generation backfield to get an early jump on 2024.

Iowa (#17, 10-3, 7-2) ended their season in the B1G Championship game the first week of December, a 26-0 loss to #1 Michigan. It was the second time in Iowa's last 10 games that the Hawkeyes were shutout, and 6th time out of the last 10 that Iowa scored less than 20 points. However, it was only the second time all season that Iowa allowed more than 16 points as well. 

Previously on Vols vs. Hawkeyes: Tennessee beat Iowa 45-28 in the Gator Bowl following the 2014 season to take a 2-1 lead in the all-time series. Including this Citrus Bowl, all four meetings between the Vols and Hawkeyes will have been on neutral fields, with UT losing the Peach Bowl in 1982, but winning a Kickoff Classic against Iowa to begin the 1987 season at the old Meadowlands. 

Five Factor Preview

Tennessee Defense vs. Iowa Offense:

It's been a while since I've posted the full season-long look at this data, so let's take a look: 


I feel confident saying that Iowa has the worst offense Tennessee has faced this season. Compare their numbers to Virginia, UConn, and Vandy, and somehow the Hawkeyes still find a way to be worse. BTW, Tennessee's win over Texas A&M should carry more weight. I know the Aggies' record was unimpressive--to the point of firing Jimbo Fisher and eating his massive buyout--but that's a team with a ton of talented players and statistically, one of the most solid teams the Vols faced all season. 

To give some more context to how bad Iowa's offense is, the Hawkeyes rank #130 out of 133 teams with just 1.23 points per drive. When Iowa gets the ball between the opponent's 20 and 40 yard lines, they somehow get worse, scoring a nationally-worst .78 points per drive. I want you to think about that. Hand the ball to Iowa at your own 30--statistically a scoring opportunity where you'd expect most teams to come away with at least a field goal--and the Hawkeyes average less than a point in that situation. To their credit (I suppose), Iowa skyrockets to 85th-best nationally when getting the ball inside the opponent's 20, where they average 3.11 points per drive. Word to the wise: DO NOT turn the ball over inside the 20 unless you want to see 3 big ones go up on the board for Iowa. 

What could potentially make this matchup more interesting for the Tennessee defense is how inexperienced the Vols' secondary will be for this game. For example, Ricky Gibson III will likely start opposite Gabe Jeudy-Lally at the corner spots, and I don't even know who to pencil in behind them at #2. 

Tennessee Offense vs. Iowa Defense

So here's the rub. As bad as Iowa is offensively, they are that good defensively. And I know, the first counterargument here is that they play a bad schedule. But they did win 10 games, and it was almost entirely due to this defense. With that said, don't let this chart fool you too much. I wouldn't dare put the Hawkeyes defense on the same level as Georgia's or Alabama's. They are probably similar to Texas A&M, at least in terms of toughness (they don't have nearly the same level of raw talent as the Aggies do). 

Iowa's defense does not do anything flashy. They don't blitz much. They are as close to a traditional 4-3 defense as you're going to find in today's game. That is to say, the Hawkeyes rely on the front line to play 2-gap responsibilities, freeing up the linebackers to make plays in front of a secondary in a quarters shell. As much as we'd all like to see Nico Iamaleava uncork a 70-yard bomb on the first play of his first start, it's more likely that UT will need to establish a presence up front first and find a way to put the Iowa safeties in conflict with play action as the game progresses. 

The 2-Deep

By the way, here's a preview of a tool I've been tinkering with behind the scenes and will roll out completely next season. If you were going to games at Neyland in the 80s and 90s you probably remember the two-deep printed in the back of the programs. I've wanted to recreate something like that. I've also added the star system from the depth by class page, using the player's rating as a recruit (full star =  blue-chip player, half star = high 3-star player, empty star = mid-to-low 3 star, the kind of player you're looking to recruit over in most situations). The Iowa two-deep comes straight from what their AD released earlier this week. Tennessee did not release a two-deep chart, so I've had to make a lot of guesses. As always, click for a larger version. 

Prediction: Iowa's defense is legit. I don't care who's on the schedule. They don't give up yards, and they don't give up points. Tennessee is breaking in a new QB, and regardless of how talented he is, he will make freshman mistakes. On the other hand, Iowa must have the most inept offense of any 10-win team ever. It's possible that UT could forget to out a defense on the field entirely and Iowa still might go 3-and-out. Scoring will be at a premium in this game. Can Tennessee score 20 points? If they do, it's as good as a blowout. After watching Missouri and Ole Miss dismantle better B1G teams than Iowa, I would have a hard time convincing you that Tennessee isn't winning this game even if I wanted to. And I don't want to. While I do believe that many Vol fans will be surprised at just how good this Iowa defense really is, it still won't be enough for the Hawkeyes. Tennessee wins, and likely covers the 6.5 points (while the under 35.5 might hit as well). 

Extraneous: Once upon a time, Steve Spurrier quipped "You can't spell Citrus without UT" as a dig at the Vols playing in multiple Citrus Bowls at a time when the SEC champion always went to the Sugar Bowl, while the best-remaining SEC West team typically landed in the Cotton and the best-remaining East team went to Orlando. It felt like quite the insult in a period where the Vols played four Citrus Bowls in nine years as the second-best team in the SEC. The bowl landscape has changed dramatically since then, and the Citrus Bowl didn't make the cut as one of the New Years Six games (despite being more prestigious than the Peach Bowl for most of its history). 

This will be the first Citrus Bowl for Tennessee since routing Michigan 45-17 after the 2001 season. Despite the Ol' Ball Coach's best shot at derision, UT has been very successful in this game, going 4-1 all-time in Orlando. Meanwhile, both programs Spurrier remains known for running--South Carolina and Florida--missed out on bowls this season. I guess you can't spell "I'll only be watching games from the couch" without OBC. 


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