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Tennessee Vols vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: Predicting the unpredictable

What to expect when the Vols meet the Hawkeyes in the 2014 Taxslayer Bowl.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

I was in Hope, Arkansas yesterday visiting family for the holidays. My wife and I and our three kids stayed in a home owned by . . . get ready . . . my wife's sister's husband's sister. Earlier in the day, I listened as the husband in that sentence talked to a 12-year-old who was there about their relationship and finally determined that they were third cousins. Or something like that.

That's the holidays. Not only do you celebrate Christmas with the immediate family you see every day and the extended family you see a couple of times a year, you stretch the meaning of extended family altogether and perhaps even meet some of them for the first time. Who are they? What do they do? What quirks do they have? It's part of what makes the holidays fun, and it's part of what makes the event completely unpredictable.

Bowl games are similar. We've spent the year with our SEC brethren, getting to know their quirks and tendencies (and trying to exploit them on the field), and now we all get on the road and go different directions to spend some time with a team most of us haven't thought about for years. Who is Iowa? What do they do well? What do they struggle to do? Can we beat them? Not knowing them as well as we know our regular rivals is what makes it especially interesting. And especially unpredictable.

So I'm not going to try to predict the unpredictable by developing a detailed dossier on the Iowa Hawkeyes. You can find that at Black Heart Gold Pants, if you're interested. I'm just going to give you a few highlights so you'll have some . . . let's call them conversation starters . . . when they start cracking heads with the Vols.

First, though, a bit of calibration. Assuming bowl matchups are designed to pit teams of equal strength against each other, it would appear that the 2014 Taxslayer bowl has accomplished its purpose. Iowa is 7-5 and .500 in the Big Ten while Tennessee is 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC. The relative strength of schedules, though, is where we'll point if and when things go screwy. According to the NCAA's official compilation, the Vols have played the nation's 6th-toughest schedule, and Iowa the 106th. Iowa has beaten Northern Iowa, Ball State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern, and Illinois, and they've lost to Iowa State, Maryland, Minnesota, #16 Wisconsin, and Nebraska. (Rankings are at-the-time, per ESPN.) Tennessee, in contrast, has beaten Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, and (here's the real contrast) lost to #4 Oklahoma, #12 Georgia, Florida, #3 Ole Miss, #4 Alabama, and #20 Missouri. We don't have much to show for playing that tougher schedule, but we should be able to conclude that the stats we compiled this season are more battle-tested than the stats Iowa's compiled against its schedule.

So with that context in mind, let's take a quick look at the main unit matchups to see what we should expect when the teams meet up Friday. Despite Volunteer Nation being appropriately stoked about true freshman running back Jalen Hurd and sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs's ability to run, the Tennessee ground attack isn't yet particularly fearsome. Still ranked 100th in the nation, the Vols only got 135 yards per game on the ground this season. Fortunately, Iowa's run defense, although ranking better than UT's rushing offense, isn't especially fearsome, either, allowing 158.8 yards per game. We're guessing the Vols get somewhere around 100 rushing yards on Friday. Unless liftoff is now.

Where Iowa is a terror is on passing yards allowed, a stat for which they rank 7th in the nation with 175.8 per game. Tennessee has, of course, seen that before, having played 5th-ranked Georgia and 14th-ranked Ole Miss. Those two games trigger very different emotions for us Vols fans, so who knows how this one plays out. But it could be the key to the entire game. If Dobbs can get on track with a healthy receiving corps, the Vols should have success.

Other than that, Iowa's offense is by far not the best we've seen. The passing attack compares best to that of Kentucky and Arkansas State, and the running attack compares best to Kentucky and South Carolina. We'll take any of those results, of course.

On the scoreboard, the Hawkeyes are better at keeping opponents from scoring than they are at scoring points themselves. Scoring defense looks most like Oklahoma and Missouri, and scoring offense looks most like Missouri and Kentucky. Basically, if you just look at point totals, it looks like the the oddsmakers are about right giving the Vols a 3.5 point edge.

The other thing about bowl games, though, is that attitude matters. Tennessee players and fans are very excited to back in postseason play and view themselves as being on the launching pad for something special in the next couple of seasons. Word is that the Iowa program is a bit mired in apathy. If true, that could also swing the game wide open. Overall, I'm expecting a close game if both teams come to play and wouldn't be surprised to see a Vols blowout if the teams come in with wildly different attitudes.

Go Vols.

Tennessee Logo Iowa Logo Comps Result against Comps Guess
Closest Lower Closest Higher Closest Lower Closest Higher
Team Team Team Team
Rank Value Rank Value Rank Value Rank Value
Tennessee rushing offense vs. Iowa rushing defense 100 135 55 158.8 Georgia Missouri Georgia Missouri 100
65 166.8 31 135.8 117 53
Tennessee passing offense vs. Iowa passing defense 66 228 7 175.8 Georgia Ole Miss Georgia Ole Miss 220
5 170.4 14 187.6 284 191
Tennessee rushing defense vs. Iowa rushing offense 62 162.1 73 156.3 Kentucky S. Carolina Kentucky S. Carolina 120
77 153.2 65 161 94 248
Tennessee passing defense vs. Iowa passing offense 26 197.8 53 242 Kentucky Arkansas St. Kentucky Arkansas St. 180
63 231.2 50 248.2 168 190
Tennessee scoring offense vs. Iowa scoring defense 72 27.6 35 24 Oklahoma Missouri Oklahoma Missouri 27
56 25.9 24 21.4 10 21
Tennessee scoring defense vs. Iowa scoring offense 34 23.9 67 28.3 Missouri Kentucky Missouri Kentucky 23
74 27.4 62 29.2 29 16