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Iowa vs. Tennessee: Previewing the Citrus Bowl

Iowa has won 11+ games three times in program history, all under the stewardship of Kirk Ferentz. Can the team repeat this accomplishment with a win over Tennessee?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa fans owe the Tennessee Volunteers a debt of gratitude. The last time Iowa and Tennessee squared off on the gridiron came in a 45-28 loss in the 2015 Gator Bowl which was even less competitive than the score suggested. This defeat marked one of the low points for Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz; the Hawkeyes finished the season 7-6 after starting the year 5-1, and the program had posted a 34-30 record since winning the Orange Bowl with no postseason wins since 2010. With the team stuck in a rut and serious question swirling about whether its head coach had lost his magic touch, “New Kirk” was born in the wake of Iowa’s loss to Tennessee, with Ferentz committing that Spring to starting CJ Beathard the following season and adopting more aggressive tendencies in the years to come. Since that disastrous Gator Bowl, Iowa has an 81-33 record, three division titles, five Top 25 finishes, and a string of impressive wins over opponents like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and USC.

As Iowa prepares to play Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, the Hawkeyes once again find themselves at something of a crossroads. While Kirk Ferentz has achieved sustained success since his last bout against the Volunteers, Iowa has regressed considerably on offense over the past few years, which prompted interim athletic director Beth Goetz to announce the team’s pending divorce from Kirk’s son and embattled offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz at the end of the season. Meanwhile, the more aggressive play calling and willingness to go for it on 4th down that characterized “New Kirk” has slowly given way to a more conservative game management approach, with “punting is winning” becoming the program’s unofficial mantra. With the Hawkeyes looking to make significant offensive changes this offseason and losing its All-World, field-flipping punter to the NFL, this game against #21 Tennessee could once again signal the end of an era for Iowa football regardless of whether Iowa is able to secure a victory.

Here are three key factors that could determine whether Iowa can end the 2023 season on a high note and post an eleven-win season for only the fourth time in program history:

1. Can Iowa exploit Tennessee’s vulnerabilities in the secondary?

It is difficult to exaggerate just how bad the Iowa passing game has been this season. Aside from the service academy teams that run a triple option offense, no team in the FBS has thrown for fewer yards per game than the Hawkeyes in 2023 (123.2). With Iowa finishing second to last in the country in both completion percentage (49.8%) and passer rating (95.11) and preparing to play a Tennessee defense that is allowing fewer yards per carry than all but 11 teams in college football (3.20), Hawkeye fans can be forgiven for wondering whether they are in store for another putrid offensive performance if Iowa finds itself forced to pass to move the ball.

However, Tennessee’s struggles defending the pass could create opportunities for Iowa to attack through the air. Tennessee has surrendered 234.9 passing yards per game and allowed opponents to complete 67.1% of their passes (only seven FBS teams are allowing a higher completion rate this season), and that was BEFORE they lost seven players from their secondary to the transfer portal, including three starters. The Volunteers have an experienced cornerback in Gabe Jeudy-Lally and safety in Jaylen McCollough, but the team has question marks at several other positions; for example, newly tapped starting cornerback Rickey Gibson III is only a freshman who has mostly played on special teams. While Iowa’s pass catchers have struggled to get separation from defensive backs this season, they should have opportunities to find open space against a Volunteer secondary that has been a sieve in coverage.

Tennessee’s struggles in pass coverage do not guarantee Iowa’s success in the passing game, however. Some of the Volunteer’s coverage issues are linked to the team’s blitz-happy nature, which often leaves the team’s overmatched defensive backs on an island against opposing receivers. To Tennessee’s credit, however, the Vols have been very good at getting to the quarterback. Only nine teams in the FBS average more sacks than Tennessee per game (three), and defensive end James Pearce Jr. and defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott make up a formidable pass rushing duo capable of producing pressure on the edge and the interior. Iowa allows 2.08 sacks per game, and Deacon Hill’s lack of mobility, slow release, and tendency to hold onto the ball too long could create opportunities for Tennessee’s pass rush to get home. Iowa’s ability to exploit Tennessee’s vulnerability on the back end of its defense could be determined by how well its line can hold up in pass protection and whether Hill can hit his receivers when they are open.

2. Can Phil Parker solve the Tennessee offense?

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel is one of the best offensive minds in college football, but the version of the Volunteer offense the Hawkeyes will face on Monday is not the same iteration that was in the Top 20 nationally in yards per play this year (6.6). Tennessee’s offense has been predicated on quarterback Joe Milton’s ability to stretch the defense with his incredible arm strength, which created ample opportunities for running back Jaylen Wright to attack defenses on the ground with their opponents focused on the pass. With both Milton, Wright, and backup running back Jabari Small headed to the NFL, Iowa will have to contend with five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava, sophomore running back and Tennessee rushing touchdown leader Dylan Sampson, and one of the SEC’s most dynamic offensive weapons in wideout Squirrel Wright.

While Sampson and Wright are proven commodities, Iamaleava is something of a wildcard. He has NFL arm talent but is largely untested and has thrown only 26 passes in his collegiate career. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker excels at taking away the throws opposing quarterbacks want to make and forcing them to either dump the ball off to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage or repeatedly make difficult throws downfield to move the ball through the air. As gifted as Iamaleava is, he has not shown that he can operate Tennessee’s sophisticated passing offense against a defense as fast, physical, and well-coached as Iowa’s. Phil Parker has had nearly a month to prepare for Tennessee’s offense, and while the Vols’ opt-outs may change Heupel’s gameplan somewhat, the smart money is on Tennessee running more or less the same scheme they have stuck with all season. If Parker can dial up creative blitzes and coverages to confuse or frustrate Iamaleava, he could force the Volunteers to lean on the running game to move the ball, something which opponents have found difficult to do against a Hawkeye team allowing only three yards per carry and surrendering only four rushing touchdowns this year.

3. Can either team avoid self-inflicted wounds?

Iowa and Tennessee have both had strong seasons in 2023 but have occasionally been their own worst enemies. For the Volunteers, their Achilles’ heel has been penalties; only Colorado and New Mexico average more penalties per game than Tennessee has this year (8.2). With so many backups and underclassmen set to play for Tennessee against an opponent that is one of the least penalized teams in college football, the Volunteers’ tendency to draw flags could create a significant advantage for Iowa by putting the Volunteer offense behind the sticks or helping the moribund Hawkeyes offense extend its drives. Meanwhile, while Tennessee has committed only 12 turnovers this year (ranking 14th among FBS teams), the Hawkeyes have given the ball up 19 times, which can be a kiss of death given Iowa’s offensive struggles. A few ill-timed turnovers could help make up for any offensive struggles the Volunteers have by gifting them with short fields and could present major problems for a Hawkeye squad that already scores fewer points per game than almost any team in the country. Both Iowa and Tennessee have had a month to work with their players on eliminating these mistakes and reducing the number of wounds they inflict on themselves. Whether either of these teams was successful in this endeavor, as well as their opponents’ ability to take advantage of their opponents mistakes when they make them, could decide the outcome of this game.