What jumps out at you most about Iowa's resume is their close losses, especially the last two weeks. A close loss to Wisconsin certainly looks a little different after the Big 10 title game, but the Hawkeyes did give the Badgers all they wanted. Iowa was simply unable to stop Melvin Gordon (31 carries, 200 yards, 2 TDs); rushing defense has been a common problem in their losses:
- Maryland: 46 carries, 212 yards (4.61 avg)
- Minnesota: 59 carries, 291 yards (4.93 avg)
- Wisconsin: 42 carries, 266 yards (6.33 avg)
- Nebraska: 31 carries, 161 yards (5.19 avg)
Against the Cornhuskers last weekend Iowa had a 24-7 lead midway through the second quarter, gave up three straight touchdowns, rallied to take the lead with a minute left, then gave up a 35 yard pass to set up a Nebraska field goal to send it to overtime. The Hawkeyes got three, the Huskers got six, and that was that.
The run defense may have let them down at the end of the year, but Iowa's two best offensive performances of the season came in November. On the road at bowl eligible Illinois the Hawkeyes were exceptionally balanced with 304 on the ground and 283 through the air in a 30-14 win with a season high 7.43 yards per play. The next week against Wisconsin they had just 101 on the ground but quarterback Jake Rudock was 20 of 30 for 311 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Rudock reads as a get-the-job-done senior starter: 31st nationally in completion percentage, 16-to-5 TD-INT ratio, 7.1 yards per attempt. It's an upperclassman offense: the top three receivers are junior Tevaun Smith and seniors Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell, junior tight end Jake Duzey has 36 catches for 392 yards, and senior running back Mark Weisman has 14 touchdowns this season. Weisman is one of 37 backs in the country with more than 200 carries, but his 3.82 yards per carry is the lowest average among that group.
Experience is the biggest difference between the Vols and Hawkeyes, as their defense too is full of upperclassmen including six of the top seven leading tacklers. Iowa had 25 sacks on the year but defensive linemen Drew Ott (7.5) and Louis Trinca-Pasat (6.5) both ranked in the Top 10 among Big Ten players. Against Tennessee's offensive line they could be in for more of the same.
The Hawkeyes are 23rd nationally in passing yards allowed per attempt. They got touched up by Minnesota and Wisconsin on minimal attempts (10 of 14 for 138 and 11 of 14 for 139) but have been strong against the pass the rest of the year; they gave up 380 through the air to Northern Iowa in the opener, but in conference play gave up no more than 206 yards to Maryland. Some of that is their schedule - the Hawkeyes didn't play Ohio State or Michigan State - but their pass defense should provide an excellent opportunity for Josh Dobbs to face another strong challenge before next season.
With little of quality to stand on in the win column, optimistic Iowa fans could point to the team's -5 turnover ratio and finishing 91st in red zone scoring as correctable misfortune. Most of their conversation centers on Kirk Ferentz, completing his 16th season and just 34-29 the last five years after going 70-31 from 2002-09. He's also lost his last two bowl appearances; Butch Jones is 1-2 in bowls, leaving Central Michigan and then Cincinnati before their bowl games to move on to his next destination.
Since 2009, Iowa has gone 19-21 in the Big Ten -- and that's despite missing the Big Ten champion in 2011 and 2012 (Wisconsin), as well as a 12-0 Ohio State team in 2012. Iowa also didn't play either Ohio State (11-1) or Michigan State (10-2) this season. That's a lot of top teams to duck -- and Iowa still hasn't taken advantage of those scheduling quirks and been able to put together title-contending seasons.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, Iowa has gone 15-17 in league play. They're 1-3 against Nebraska in that span, as well as 0-2 against Wisconsin, 0-1 against Ohio State, and 1-2 against Michigan State. Their only win over a realistic Big Ten contender in that span was the upset win over Michigan in 2011 (the Wolverines finished the regular season 10-2, 6-2 in the Big Ten, a game back of Michigan State). That win was also Iowa's last win over a ranked opponent. Over half of Iowa's wins in the Big Ten since Nebraska's arrival have come against Purdue (3), Northwestern (3), and Indiana (2).
And thus what is potentially the biggest difference between these two teams: Iowa is an experienced team with the same old average results, a program stuck in neutral. Tennessee is young and trending upward, a program we believe has better days coming all the time. And we will believe it even more if the Vols find their seventh win in Jacksonville. If you're not in the playoff the bowl game is the aftertaste, and Tennessee has a chance to feel very good about themselves going forward here.
So, it's not the opportunity win the Vols might have found in Memphis, Nashville, or Charlotte. But it is January, where Tennessee hasn't been since 2007. Say what you will about perception or what the SEC will about the six bowls in this tier being equal, but there's just something nice about having an extra three days in your season, playing after the New Year, and playing a day after the semifinals with all national attention to yourself as the only game at the time. Iowa may not be an opportunity opponent, but the old Gator Bowl is an opportunity bowl. And Iowa, having had a season very similar to Tennessee's, is certainly good enough to spoil that opportunity if the Vols don't play well.