On New Year’s Day, Tennessee plays Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. Fun fact: The Vols’ first ever bowl-game win came in 1939 when UT — coached by none other than General Robert Neyland himself — beat Oklahoma 17-0 in the Citrus Bowl.
The two teams have squared off just three times prior, with the most recent coming in 2015 (2014 season) when the Vols beat the Hawkeyes 45-28, with Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd accounting for a combined five touchdowns.
Part of what makes bowl season so much fun is that you get matchups like this, with UT in the SEC and Iowa in the Big 10, that normally wouldn’t happen. Then sometimes there’s an added bonus, like when you have the chance to see two teams that couldn’t be much different stylistically.
The Hawkeyes finished the year 10-2 while having scored 16.6 points per-game, which ranked them 128th out of 132 teams nationally. On the other end, the Vols finished 32nd in the country by putting up an average of 31.6 points per-contest (stats via TeamRankings dot com). The Hawkeye’s defense finished fourth nationally, allowing just more than 13 points per-contest and allowed more than 300 yards of offense just five times.
Stats are great and useful, but since these two teams don’t play each other with any regularity, we enlisted the help of our friends at Black Heart Gold Pants — the SB Nation home for all things Iowa — for some extra insight into Monday’s matchup.
1.) Alright — since Iowa doesn’t play in the SEC, I’d say a lot of Vol fans aren’t very familiar with the Hawkeyes. Hit us with a player or two that Vol fans should watch out for on each side of the ball.
I’ll start with the defensive side of the ball given there’s a lot more noteworthy going on on that side of things. Cooper DeJean is the superstar of the group and a unanimous 1st Team All-American, though he won’t be playing in the Citrus Bowl. Without him, Phil Parker’s defense takes a notable hit and even more importantly, the special teams play takes a serious step back. Beyond DeJean, though the defense has plenty of talent. At safety, Xavier Nwankpa is the only 5-star prospect on the roster and he’s good to show off that athleticism at least a couple times on Monday. But if you don’t know who is who, you might find yourself first wondering if #29 is that 5-star kid as Sebastian Castro, who plays Iowa’s hybrid LB/S position (they refer to it as “cash”), typically appears shot out of a cannon, coming from off the screen to practically running through it to blow up plays in the backfield. He’s been able to play very freely by the incredible dependability Iowa’s seen at linebacker this season with All-American Jay Higgins and All-Big Ten running mate Nick Jackson.
On the other side of the ball, things are... less exciting. Virtually all of Iowa’s most talented skill players have been injured for the season and the resulting passing game has meant there is very little to call out there. It is worth noting, though, that Ohio State transfer Kaleb Brown seemed to find his role late in the season and is clearly the most dynamic athlete the Hawkeyes have had at WR in years. Beyond him, though, the most notable names are in the running game where Iowa has played a three-headed monster much of the year. Kaleb Johnson entered his sophomore campaign the talk of the town after rushing for 779 yards on 5.3 YPC a season ago. But a lingering ankle injury has meant Johnson ceded a lot of reps to Leshon Williams, who leads the team in rushing at 804 yards on the season. Williams has better initial burst than Johnson but lacks the home run speed to break away the way we saw Johnson a year ago. That hasn’t stopped him from pulling off some big ones this year, but it has limited his upside a bit. Look for Iowa to mix in freshman Jaz Patterson as more of a scatback with those two.
2.) Iowa sits at fourth nationally, allowing just more than 13 points per-game. What’s the secret there? Sleeping pills in the opposing team’s Gatorade?
The secret to Phil Parker’s annual success with the defense is simplicity. There is no secret as to what Iowa will do on defense. You’re going to get a base 4-2-5 defense running a cover two shell with some man underneath with limited use of blitz pressure. Every player that steps foot on the field for Parker’s defense knows exactly where to be and is rarely caught out of position.
The game Parker plays is betting his defense can avoid giving up the big play long enough with his guys playing mistake free longer than an offense can string together plays without a mistake of their own. He’ll happily give up 3-8 yards through the air with regularity to avoid giving up anything over the top while committing to stop the run. When opponents get impatient and take their shot, that tends to be when we see turnovers, sacks or offenses getting stuck behind the chains and then it’s game over.
3.) All kidding aside, the two games Iowa’s lost this season were also the only two games in which it allowed more than 20 points to the opposing team. Is there anything to that, is it just a coincidence or does it have more to do with the two contests being against Penn State and Michigan?
There’s certainly something to be said for the two best team’s Iowa faced all year putting up the most points. Obvious answer is obvious. But those two games also played out very differently and if Iowa had any pulse on offense, neither of those teams would have topped 20 points.
PSU did exactly what what Phil Parker bets nobody is willing to do: they stayed patient ALL game and never once took a shot. They averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in the passing game with the longest play of the day coming on a 19-yard run. But Iowa’s offense was so inept, they couldn’t string anything together to give the D a break and ultimately, the Nittany Lions used 99 plays on offense to put up 31 points and benefitted from four Hawkeye fumbles (one of which set up PSU inside the redzone).
Michigan, quite simply, didn’t do anything to beat Iowa’s defense. They ultimately scored 26 points (well below their season average), but they managed just 213 yards of total offense - the lowest total in nearly a decade. For anyone that watched the Big Ten Championship Game, things ultimately hinged on two plays that gifted Michigan 14 of their 26 points. One was an uncharacteristic punt return allowed which set up the Wolverine offense inside the five and the other was a pass that was blown dead and ruled incomplete on the field but ended up giving Michigan the ball inside the ten again because it was a Wolverine player who walked over after the play and picked up the dead ball to return it to the official.
If Tennessee is looking to score points on Monday, the PSU model is the one to attempt emulating.
4.) Critics may point to the Hawkeyes’ conference as part of the reason they’re 10-2. But via Teamrankings dot com, the Hawkeyes have played the 46th toughest schedule in the country. Beating an SEC team in a New Year’s Day Bowl would help dampen the “weak conference,” narrative, but do Iowa fans feel slighted at all when folks bring up that argument? I mean... a team can only play the teams it’s scheduled, right?
Yes! And no. I mean, nobody in the Big Ten West is going to sit here and tell you the Big Ten West is any good. It’s not. But at the same time, watching the rest of the country this season and early on in the bowl season, that doesn’t mean anyone else is much better. Just different.
The West has evolved to match the two programs who have owned it. Iowa and Wisconsin are not schools that thrive on reeling in skill talent from the coasts or the south. But both are great at identifying and developing talent in the trenches and the result has been a division focused on physicality, winning with defense and running the ball.
So yeah, the offenses in the division are genuinely bad. But the defenses are genuinely good. And as of this writing, the division is 2-0 in bowl season.
5.) I saw yesterday that linebacker Jay Higgins is returning for another season. I’m just so happy for you.
Aside from the 155 tackles, four TFLs, one sack, one interception, one PBU, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, what does his return mean for that defense? And any advice on how to block that guy?
Higgins is a tremendous story as a guy who committed to Iowa and sat and waited his time. His size stopped him from having better offers out of high school and likely was going to hurt his draft stock despite the AA performance this season and thus his decision to return. But his leadership and tenacity this season has been tremendous after sitting his entire career behind former 1st rounder Jack Campbell.
The real key with blocking Higgins, though comes down to blocking the front four straight up. Despite playing the season without 1st Team All-Big Ten DT Noah Shannon, the front four has grown stout as the year has gone on and fellow DT Yahya Black has developed into an NFL prospect himself. He’s got a huge frame and often eats multiple blockers in the run game, which has been critical in getting Higgins, as well as the aforementioned Castro and Jackson, free runs at ball carriers.
6.) Tennessee has a lot of question marks going into this bowl game. The offense is breaking in a new QB, while losing two of its three best RBs, and trying to reconfigure an entire new secondary. How are things going over there? Anything concerning, or is it just business as usual?
I want to say it seems like business as usual over here, but to be honest “business as usual” this season has largely meant learning a new critical piece to the offense has been injured this week and that hasn’t popped up as of yet. For all the talk of Iowa’s miserable offense, a lot of it comes down to the fact they lost starting QB Cade McNamara (the former Michigan QB who beat out Joe Milton at UM prompting him to transfer to Tennessee) early in the year and then proceeded to lose both starting tight ends (which would be akin to the top WR in most modern offenses) Luke Lachey and Erick All for the season before WR Diante Vines missed time and six of the top seven offensive linemen had to miss time throughout the year.
In short, the offense has been a walking MASH unit for three months now with the aforementioned DeJean also going down to injury ahead of the final regular season game at Nebraska. Outside of the OL, none of those guys are going to be walking out of the tunnel on Monday so in that sense, it is business as usual.
7.) I don’t usually do predictions, but if you’d like to throw one in, go ahead. No pressure — I don’t need a final score or anything, but if you have a general vibe or feeling about the game, let it fly.
A week ago I would have said I predict this is a miserable watch for virtually everyone involved, but that Tennessee simply had too much offensive firepower for Iowa to hang around. However, the news on Milton strikes me as a bigger deal than I suspect it feels like to most Vol fans simply because it seems like we’ve seen this movie a bunch of times at Iowa.
I know it feels like this should be a walk in the park. The Hawkeyes can’t score points and it seems laughable to think that some basic, bland defense with a bunch of 3-star kids from midwest is going to be able to hang around . “They haven’t seen speed like this before”. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard/read/been told that as an Iowa fan I could probably afford to quit my day job. The handful of times it’s been true, it’s been at the hands of playoff-caliber teams.
This one feels eerily similar to the Music City Bowl a season ago where Iowa had a miserable offense with a backup QB who couldn’t do anything and was facing an SEC opponent with talent on the offensive side of the ball. I understand Tennessee is not Kentucky and this year is not last, but a true freshman QB against Phil Parker’s defense is good for at least two “uh-oh” moments that will give Iowa chance. I’m not bold enough to call for the outright win, but I’m to the point where I think the Hawkeyes can cover the 7.5 points. And as always when Iowa is involved, smash the under.
Tennessee 17, Iowa 13
Thanks to the folks at Black Heart Gold Pants for the assist here. I might be wrong (I’m wrong a lot), but anybody picking this to be a walk in the park for the Vols could be in for a rude awakening come game time.