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The Butcher’s Word: Tennessee Volunteers

It’s time to get to know Iowa’s Citrus Bowl opponent.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes haven’t seen the Tennessee Volunteers in nine seasons and most Hawkeye fans have done what they can to forget that meeting. A lot has changed in Knoxville in that time so this group of Vols is not the same one that took that version of Iowa to the woodshed (and notably set the table for the undefeated 2015 season). So it’s time to get to know a bit about the 2023 Tennessee Volunteers.

In the words of the wise and sage-like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?

So rather than sticking our head up anyone’s rear end, we’re asking our friends over at Rocky Top Talk for their words on the Tennessee Volunteers. We were joined by Nick Carner over at RTT to talk all things Tennessee this week. Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: While most Iowa fans have attempted to completely block out any memories of the 2015 Taxslayer Bowl, it is the most recent memory we have facing the Volunteers. However, Josh Heupel is not Butch Jones and this is not 2014. Let’s start big picture and just talk a bit about Heupel’s philosophy and the journey of this 2023 version of Tennessee’s season.

RTT: There’s some misconceptions about Heupel and his offense. Simply, the idea is to snap the ball quick, don’t substitute often and try to catch your opponent slipping. Heupel uses wide splits with the WRs to try and create as much space as possible — vertically and horizontally — on the field for the defense to defend. Something that’s also missed when folks talk about the Vols’ offense is how much it runs the ball. UT’s run the ball on 52, 54 and 52 percent of its plays since Heupel took over as coach and finished 12th (219 yards per-game), 20th (199 yards per-game) and 12th again this season nationally with an average of 200 yards on the ground per-contest.

As far as this season, it’s definitely not gone exactly the way Tennessee fans hoped, but challenges get thrown a team’s way and the staff is responsible for making due the best it can. The offensive line was a game of musical chairs all season, Joe Milton was, well, erratic with his downfield accuracy and the secondary struggled making tackles and covering opposing players in space. Let’s be clear: I’m not making excuses. The DBs have been an issue since Heupel took over, and nothing’s been done about it. But, anybody who’s complained will get to see what things look like in the bowl game as the Vols will be fielding a nearly entirely new group on the backend thanks to the mass exodus of Tennessee’s defensive backs.

BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, the Vols couldn’t be much different from Iowa. Tennessee enters the week 16th nationally in total offense and scoring 31.5 points per game. A lot of that has come via the running game, where the Vols average more than 200 yards per game and more than 5 yards per rush. What has that rushing attack looked like schematically and how do you expect it to adapt with the announcement that thousand-yard rusher Jaylen Wright will be foregoing the game to prepare for the NFL Draft?

RTT: Okay — so maybe the secret’s out about UT’s run game. UT doesn’t do anything really exotic when it runs the ball. You’ll see a lot of RPOs, zone reads, inside zones and power run plays. But again, it’s all about the pace the offense operates at and keeping the wide receivers as close to the sidelines as possible to draw defenders away from the ball.

And as fantastic as Jaylen Wright was this season, he had help. Both Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson rushed for close to 500 yards each, and Sampson tied for the team-lead in TDs with seven. But Wright’s off to the NFL, while Small is out of eligibility and won’t be playing in the bowl game. Sampson was the lightning to Wright and Small’s thunder, but I expect freshman Cam Seldon — who showed up at Tennessee at 6-2, 222 — to get plenty of chances come New Year’s Day.

BHGP: While the rushing attack has been formidable, the passing attack has been just as lethal with 21 touchdowns via the air and more than 250 yards per game passing. Let’s start with the status of starter Joe Milton and any rumors of him opting out and then more broadly, just talk a bit about how Heupel’s offense likes to attack opposing defenses in the passing game.

RTT: Well, as of about 10:30 Am EST on Wednesday, according to On3, Milton has opted out and will not be playing in the bowl game. That puts the game on the shoulders of 5-star freshman Nico Iamaleava. The coaches have plenty of confidence in Nico, but this will still be the first start of his collegiate career. And it comes against one of the best defenses in the country. That’s a tall task.

I’m not going to speak ill of Milton here, but the 2022 offense with Hendon Hooker at the helm was a better example of what Heupel wants to do than this past season was. The staff likes to take shots down the field, but they’re measured about it. Let’s say the offense breaks off a eight-or-nine yard rush on first down — that’s when the coaches want to hurry to the ball and let one fly. But this team doesn’t have a healthy Cedric Tillman or Jalin Hyatt on it, and with the late-season injury to Bru McCoy, the WR room doesn’t have the playmakers it’s had in the past. But, outside of Squirrel White, who led the team in catches and yards, a name to watch is Dont’e Thornton. He had a slow start to the season, but that’s because the coaches were playing him almost exclusively in the slot. At 6-5, he belongs on the outside, and once he started getting reps there, he had his best games of the year.

BHGP: Last question on the offense before we begrudgingly acknowledge the Iowa will also be forced to play offense for some short periods of the game. While the Vols have a potent offense as noted, they have been held to 20 or fewer points five times this season, including a pair of games against Georgia and Missouri where they scored ten or less. What sorts of things have thrown Tennessee off their game and how were Mizzou and Georgia so successful in slowing down Milton, Wright and company?

RTT: Well, for starters, Georgia and Missouri were both just better football teams than Tennessee was this season. Both teams were more physical and won the battle at the line of scrimmage. It’s cliche, I know, but it’s true. The Vols didn’t help themselves, either. Against the Tigers, UT fumbled the ball three times and Missouri recovered two of them. And nine penalties for 95 yards didn’t help the cause. Against UGA, the defense allowed the Dogs to convert 9-13 on third-down chances and converted just 2-11 on offense. The SEC is a meat grinder, and if your team makes mistakes, you’re likely to get pummeled. That’s just how it is.

BHGP: OK fine, Iowa will attempt to play offense too for however little time they’re forced to. The Tennessee defense had a bit of an up and down year it would seem, but largely held in well against teams that aren’t playing in the playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl. Talk through the base scheme, how defensive coordinator Tim Banks likes attack opposing offenses and how you expect him to adjust to the recent departures in the secondary.

RTT: I’d say, for the most part, Banks is an aggressive defensive coordinator. He’s at his best when he’s blitzing out of exoctic formations and keeping the opposing offense guesing. Most teams these days have moved to a base 4-2-5, but he’s going to give multiple looks, and Tennessee has the personnel to execute them. On passing downs, you’re likely to see an EDGE on both sides of the line instead of having a strongside defensive end on the field. But when there’s a yard or two to be gained, you’re more likely to see some of the bulkier defensive linemen in the middle and on the edges. With the secondary, your guess is as good as mine. I don’t think many folks will know what’s going on back there until just before gametime.

BHGP: It’s Iowa so I’m going to sneak in a special teams question. Anyone to note in the return game for the Volunteers? General thoughts on what constitutes a fair catch? I am efforting on video of punter Jackson Ross’ 71-yarder from this season but if you have thoughts on his abilities to pin opponents deep those would be cathartic. And then in the kicking game, kicker Charles Campbell has been perfect on 44 PATs this season, a number which seems laughably large to this fanbase, but has seemingly struggled with distance going just 3/8 beyond 40 yards with a season-long of 49. If the game comes down to a last second field goal, how nervous will Vol fans be?

RTT: Kick returns these days are usually conceded, but the Vols are lucky in that they have at least two players with the ability to take a punt back for six points.

Dee Williams was one of the premier punt returners in the country this season, finishing second nationally in yards per-return at 14.7. He was also instrumental in UT’s win against Texas A&M. Williams downed one of Ross’ punts at the Aggie one-yard line and then returned the subsequent A&M punt 39 yards for a TD that gave UT a lead that it didn’t give back. My advice — just don’t kick it to him. The coaches have slowly been exploring ways to get him the ball on offense, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see him in there on a jet sweep or something of that nature. The aforementioned Squirrel White also has the speed, agility and quickness to take one to the house, but he’s so integral to the Vols’ passing game, I’m not sure how keen the coaches would be to risk having him back there.

And yes — that punt from Ross was special. He started the season a little slow, but man did he come around by year’s end. He can kick with either leg, and he can rugby-style it or sit back and let it fly the more traditional way. It’s that end-over-end spin he creates with the rugby style kick that allows the ball to bounce in ways it looks like it shouldn’t. He had nine punts of 50-plus yards and 18 that were downed inside the 20. I consider him a weapon on special teams, and he’s just a freshman. Hopefully we won’t have to use him so much in the future 8^ )

If the game comes down to a last second field goal, Vol fans will be nervous no matter what. Justin Tucker could show up, throw on the orange and white and fans would still be biting their nails.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have this one at Tennessee -8 with an over/under of 36 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?

RTT: There are just so many unknowns from the Tennessee side going into this game. How will Nico play in his first career start? What if one of the oft-injured offensive linemen goes down? How is the staff going to find a whole new secondary? How will the running game adjust after losing two members of its three-headed monster?

On paper, this looks like the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object, and I’m not big on predictions. I’d like to say the Vols will figure out a way to score three touchdowns, but I don’t see this being anywhere near a walk in the park. Tennessee’s had trouble with physical teams this season, so if Iowa can muck this game up, keep UT’s offense off the field and get to the Vols’ prized QB early and often, well, it could be a long offseason in Knoxville.

A physical team this Iowa group certainly is and we all know the Hawkeyes are itching for a rock fight. Here’s hoping they can find one and not get run out of town like we saw back in the 2015 Taxslayer Bowl.

Thanks again to Nick over at Rocky Top Talk for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to stop over there to check out their coverage of the game this week, including a Q&A with yours truly.

Iowa and Tennessee will kick off at noon central on Monday, January 1st. The game will be broadcast on ABC.