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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 UConn at Tennessee

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Tennessee-Iowa Preview: Opt-outs, key players, matchups to watch

A major clash of styles.

Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No. 21 Tennessee (8-4) is set to take on No. 17 Iowa (10-3) in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando. It’s the Volunteers’ first appearance in the game since the 2001 season, where they crushed Michigan to the tune of 45-10.

It’s the biggest clash of styles that you can possibly draw up. Iowa’s slow, often putrid offense, going up against Tennessee’s lightning-fast spread attack. You can say what you want about the Hawkeyes, but they just keep finding ways to win 8-10 games per year. But does that formula translate to a win against Tennessee?

There are a ton of variables here, so let’s dive in.

Key Tennessee Opt-Outs, Transfers, Injuries

  • QB Joe Milton
  • RB Jaylen Wright
  • RB Jabari Small
  • DE Tyler Baron (Transfer)
  • Nickel Tamarion McDonald (Transfer)
  • S Wesley Walker (Transfer)
  • CB Doneiko Slaughter (Transfer)
  • CB Brandon Turnage (Transfer)
  • OL Addison Nichols (Transfer)
  • OL Javontez Spraggins (Injury)
  • LB Keenan Pili (Injury)
  • LB Arion Carter (Injury)
  • WR Bru McCoy (Injury)
  • WR Dont’e Thornton (Injury)
  • CB Kamal Hadden (Injury)
  • OL John Campbell (QUESTIONABLE — Injury)

Obviously the big news this week has been the opt-out of Joe Milton, which will hand the keys to true freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava. The loss of Milton wasn’t a huge deal to the betting market, moving the line down from -8 to -6.

Iamaleava, the former No. 1 overall player in the country, has attempted just 26 passes all season long during his four appearances. This will be our first extended look at Nico, who will assume the starting job in 2024.

Tennessee will lean heavily on Dylan Sampson with both Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright out of the picture. This will also force true freshman Cam Seldon into action.

The area of concern for Tennessee will be the secondary, where they’ve seen six players hit the portal. The Volunteers will still have Gabe Jeudy-Lally, but will more than likely turn to true freshman Rickey Gibson. All the depth behind those two will be very young, lacking virtually any experience.

Key Iowa Transfers/Injuries

  • QB Spencer Petras
  • WR Diante Vines
  • DL Anterio Thompson
  • QB Joe Labas
  • DL Jackson Flier
  • DB Brenden Deasfernandes
  • QB Cade McNamara
  • DB Cooper DeJean
  • TE Erick All
  • TE Luke Lachey

Iowa has been banged up all season long, so a lot of these injuries aren’t new situations. However, the loss of defensive back Cooper DeJean is a big one. The unanimous first-team All-American is the best player on the Hawkeye’s defense, leaving a big hole in the secondary.

“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,” Black Heart Gold Pants told us. “Without him, Phil Parker’s defense takes a notable hit and even more importantly, the special teams play takes a serious step back.”

Iowa’s offensive struggles have been well-documented, but it’s more understandable when you consider they lost their starting quarterback and top two tight ends, which are very important to the Hawkeye attack.

Tennessee names to know

QB Nico Iamaleava

Here’s your x-factor for the Citrus Bowl. The five-star quarterback is a bit of a mystery entering this one — how quickly will he get up to speed? What will the gameplan look like for him? All of the physical tools are there for Nico, but processing defenses at this level isn’t something that he’s done a lot of. Expect Tennessee to keep things simple and try to let Nico hit his playmakers out on the perimeter quickly.

RB Dylan Sampson

With a freshman quarterback getting the start, it’s probably a good bet to make that Tennessee is going to lean on Sampson early here. It’s going to be our first look at Sampson being the unquestioned top option at running back, but I don’t really have any concerns. Even with Jaylen Wright on the roster this year, Sampson might have been the most electric runner on the team.

Bonus name — Cam Seldon. The former four-star prospect will get his first significant playing time against Iowa. The 6-2, 220 pounder is explosive, handling time on kick return this year. Tennessee doesn’t typically sub during drives, so expect to see Seldon exclusively for a handful of full drives throughout the game.

WR Squirrel White

Tennessee’s passing attack has been vastly different this year, relying on the perimeter screen game rather than the deep shots. That’s likely to stay the same with Iamaleava making his first start, meaning White could get peppered with chances to make some plays in space.

EDGE James Pearce

We know Iowa is going to want to run the football, but knowing their offense, their lack of success is going to put them in some obvious passing downs. That’s where James Pearce comes in. The sophomore pass rusher has the looks of a future first round pick after exploding onto the scene this fall. The 6-5, 242 pound edge rusher is going to demand plenty of attention.

CB Rickey Gibson

Another wildcard here for Tennessee, Gibson will be filling in for the handful of veteran corners that have transferred out of Knoxville. Josh Heupel’s staff really doesn’t play a lot of freshmen, but their hands will be forced here. Gibson will start opposite of Gabe Jeudy-Lally, with more freshmen providing depth behind them. The good news here is that Iowa’s passing attack is nothing to be afraid of, but this could be an area to exploit for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa names to know

QB Deacon Hill

Let’s face it, 2023 has been a struggle for Hill, who was forced into action after Cade McNamara went down with a season-ending injury. McNamara brought some hope of more consistent offense to Iowa out of the transfer portal, but those hopes were quickly dashed.

Unfortunately Hill hasn’t been able to deliver much production in relief. In eight starts, Hill has thrown for just 1,096 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. Per ESPN, Hill has a QBR of 22.9, ranking 125th overall in the FBS. Simply put, Iowa has to be able to run the football for anything to work offensively. Hill hasn’t been able to generate anything on his own.

RB Leshon Williams

Building off of that last statement, Leshon Williams has been the guy in the Iowa rushing attack. Williams averages nearly five yards per carry, totaling 804 yards on the year. It’s been a bit boom-or-bust for him in 2023, however.

111, 174, 145 — his totals against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Western Michigan — prop up his statline a bit. Williams was only able to generate 25 yards in the Big Ten title game against Michigan, and came away with just nine yards rushing against Penn State earlier in the year. Tennessee isn’t quite to that level statistically in run defense, but they still rank 24th in the country.

Getting Williams going is the key for Iowa to generate points.

LB Jay Higgins

The man in the middle for Iowa, Higgins has been ridiculously productive for Iowa this year. The 6-2, 233 pound senior has been credited with 155 tackles this season, which ranks third in the FBS. The All-American linebacker recently announced his 2024 return to the Hawkeyes, but first he’ll be tasked with meeting Dylan Sampson in the trenches on Monday.

S Xavier Nwankpa

Nwankpa is probably the most purely talented player on this defense, with DeJean sidelined and likely headed to the NFL. The Iowa native was a five-star prospect, ranking 25th overall in the class of 2022. Standing in at 6-2, 210 pounds, the sophomore defender should have a busy day ahead manning the strong safety spot for the Hawkeyes. Tennessee will spread you out and force defenses to make tackles in space, and Nwankpa will be a big part of that.

P Tory Taylor

The joke writes itself here, but Taylor is a legit NFL prospect. In fact, he may end up being the top punter from this year’s class. The senior averages 47.9 yards per attempt, which ranks third in the FBS. Illustrating just how bad the Iowa offense has been this year, Taylor has over 4,100 total yards punting (86 attempts) — that leads the FBS by nearly 600 yards.

Key Stats

  • 12th overall — The Iowa run defense. The Hawkeyes hang their hat on the defensive side of the ball, bringing a legit front to the table. However, can they keep that production up against Tennessee? Heupel’s offense will spread you out and speed you up. It’s extremely unique and can serve as an equalizer against teams that excel in the box.
  • 12th overall — The Tennessee run offense. It’s going to be strength on strength in this one. As we just noted, Tennessee wins with scheme, not exactly brute strength. Despite the numbers from Iowa, Dylan Sampson should be able to rip off a few chunk runs to pace the Tennessee offense.
  • 130th overall — The Iowa offense. That’s right, dead last in the FBS. By now, you know about them. A ton of injuries, a vanilla, conservative plan. Does that style win against Tennessee?
  • FOUR — The number of Tennessee secondary starters missing. Regardless of how bad the Iowa passing attack is, there will be a ton of experience missing from the Tennessee defense on Monday. McDonald and Walker could certainly hurt Tennessee’s efforts in run support, while you worry about mental mistakes from other younger players being pushed up the depth chart and into key spots.

Line movement

These January bowl game spread move around quite a bit as news continually leaks out over a four week span. That’s no different here. Tennessee opened as an 8.5 point favorite, but that number has come down to six, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Most action there came after the news that Joe Milton had opted out. The total sits at 36 — the Iowa effect.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.

Tennessee and Iowa are set for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff on January 1st. ABC will have the coverage.

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