The bowl game leaves the aftertaste, especially in a season without a championship. When we look back on Team 118, we'll remember the brutal loss against Florida and the historic comeback against South Carolina. But whether we remember this season as a clear step in the right direction or another (hopefully final) slog through the rebuild will have a lot to do with whether Tennessee beats Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. We spent a lot of time talking about potential "opportunity wins" in the bowl game before the Vols were surprisingly sent to Jacksonville, but the truth is there's a significant difference between 7-6 and 6-7 no matter who you beat to get there when you haven't had a winning season since 2009 and haven't won a bowl game since 2007.
All of us want to put Tennessee in the SEC East conversation in 2015; even a loss to Iowa won't ultimately derail that idea with no clear favorite emerging in the division. But a win against Iowa would go a long way toward making that a truly believable goal while making the off-season a lot shorter. And while a big bowl win is certainly no guarantee of future success - 2001 and 2004 both ended with enormous bowl victories and lofty, ultimately unmet expectations the following year - it can bolster a program looking to take that next step. That's exactly what happened the last time Tennessee was in the Gator Bowl, parlaying a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech towards an 11-1 campaign the following year.
It's been true the last two games without A.J. Johnson in the fold, but it will be especially true this time, with no uncertainty about his absence and a month to prepare without him: the team you'll see on the field Friday will be the team you'll see on the field next year. Only three seniors will start, four counting the punter. Plain and simple, if the Vols look bad, it will be easier for us to assume they'll struggle next year. But if the Vols look good?
Here are the performances that will matter most in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and where the Vols have the most to gain for the off-season:
There's a narrative developing here the coaching staff really isn't doing too much to stop: young Mr. Dobbs, free from aerospace engineering and all that for a month, living and breathing as the starting quarterback with this offense throughout bowl practice. No more surprises, no more sudden change, just Dobbs with a month to prepare working as the first team quarterback. There are certainly pieces in place for Dobbs to show improvement.
So, what will we see? Dobbs has shredded lesser defenses from South Carolina and Kentucky, but struggled against Missouri and then Vanderbilt when several of his weapons were taken away. In the way stands an Iowa defense giving up just 6.4 yards per attempt, 22nd nationally. Of the teams Dobbs has faced only Missouri is better (6.1); Alabama also gives up 6.4 yards per attempt. The Hawkeyes have been victimized recently by heavy running teams who used the pass sparingly but effectively: Minnesota and Wisconsin both passed just 14 times but both averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt.
Tennessee's offensive line is what it is and will only be cured with time and talent. The Vols will also be facing Iowa suddenly thin at receiver - more on that in a second - but now with a month instead of a week to prepare, Dobbs should be more effective and the Vols should be more willing to let him throw even with limited weapons downfield.
Plain and simple, how Josh Dobbs plays will give Tennessee the greatest cause for pessimism or optimism going into the off-season.
Wide Receivers Left Standing
Josh Dobbs loves Pig Howard. Last year he was the immediate go-to guy when Dobbs came on the scene, getting 11 catches for 89 yards at Missouri. This year Howard was averaging 3.7 catches per game with Justin Worley in the game, but has pulled in 5.2 per game with Dobbs. In those first seven games he averaged 9.3 yards per catch. In the last five he's averaged 13.3.
So it's not all lost without Marquez North, Josh Smith, and Jason Croom. But that does represent an unusually heavy burden on the rest of the wide receiver corps. Von Pearson should be as healthy as he's been all year, but the Vols use he and Howard in very similar ways so I'm not sure how much we'll see them both on the field at the same time. Josh Malone has been, shall we say, a lesser favorite of of Josh Dobbs: 19 catches from Worley, three from Dobbs. Malone will be called upon more than ever in the bowl game, and for Tennessee to expand its ceiling next year they need the five-star wideout to play more to his potential. A big bowl game for Malone would go a long way toward Tennessee being as deep as they hope they can be at wide receiver next year.
More on this as the week goes, but the five-star match-up in this game is Tennessee's Freshman All-American defensive end against Iowa's Outland Trophy offensive tackle Brandon Scherff. Barnett, as you know, isn't just good for a freshman. He's one of 20 players with double digit sacks this season, and is fifth nationally in tackles for loss. If Barnett gets contained by Scherff, you tip your hat and know Barnett will get better. But if Barnett still has a productive game against Scheff? We're going to start thinking about putting Barnett on some very short lists.
The position where we're least sure of the long-term answer. This time Jakob Johnson has had more time to prepare...if he gets the first look at middle linebacker again. Against Missouri and Vanderbilt Tennessee rolled the dice with newcomers instead of trying Curt Maggitt or Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the middle, and there's been no indication it'll be any different against the Hawkeyes. If it's not Jakob Johnson, it could be Kenny Bynum. If it's not one of those two next year, the Vols could either play one of the upperclassmen out of position, or turn to a true freshman in Darrin Kirkland Jr. But if the Vols can get solid production from Jakob or Bynum, it would certainly make things easier. We'll see if progress presents itself against the Hawkeyes.
Winning, by any form or fashion, would be progress for Tennessee. But if the Vols get big games from any or all of these components, our expectations for 2015 will rise, and a return to championship conversations will feel that much closer. Tennessee comes to Jacksonville with much to gain, and will look for its most tangible progress on the backs of its young talent.