First things first. The Fearless Prediction extends the happiest of holiday wishes to you and yours, hoping that Santa didn’t disappoint.

The Fearless Prediction has spent the past few weeks relaxing, getting some much needed rest, and preparing to finish the 2023 season in winning fashion with the Vols facing Iowa in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.

There were some high notes for Tennessee this season, like getting revenge on a memorable night against South Carolina. There were also some bad times, such as their blowout loss at Mizzou. But even with the inconsistency, UT can end the year with 9 wins, something they have only accomplished once since 2016 (the Vols won 11 games in 2022).

If the Vols are going to get that 9th victory, it’ll be with a new QB at the helm. Nico Iamaleava gets his much-anticipated first college start on Monday.

“I have always been a next-play type guy, so I know I’m going to go out there and try not to make any mistakes, but if it comes, it comes,” Iamaleava told reporters this week. “I have to have a next play mentality and get my guys ready for that.”

Vols coach Josh Heupel, well aware of the runaway hype surrounding Iamaleava’s starting debut, all but said don’t expect to see Peyton Manning.

“Listen, this game is never perfect, and we don’t expect Nico to play perfect,” Heupel said. “We expect him to reset and give our playmakers an opportunity to make plays.”

Iamaleava is playing because 6th-year QB Joe Milton opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. RBs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small won’t play, either, after combining for 1488 rushing yards this season. That opens the door for Dylan Sampson and Cameron Seldon. Iamaleava does get to work behind an offensive line which allowed only 18 sacks this season.

There will also be multiple UT absences on defense. DL Tyler Baron and DB Tamarion McDonald have announced that they are transferring to Ole Miss. DB Doneiko Slaughter is going to Arkansas and DB Warren Burrell is heading to Georgia Tech.

At this rate, one lucky Tennessee fan might get plucked out of the crowd to play in the secondary.

As for Iowa, this game presents a chance for the Hawkeyes to finish with 11 victories for the 4th time in program history. The fact that they’ve won this many games is a testament to their defense, which is ranked 5th nationally in yards allowed and 4th in points given up per game.

Iowa’s offense is bad. Really bad. Like, historically bad. So bad that dad had to fire son. Seriously. Mercifully, this will be the last game at Iowa for Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator, proof that nepotism laws are in place for good reason. The Hawkeyes enter this bowl game ranked dead last nationally in total offense, averaging only 239.3 yards per game. They only score 16.6 points per game, 127th in the country. Iowa cracked the 20 point plateau once in their final 7 contests.

Bowl games are getting more and more difficult to predict these days. Which team is motivated? How many starters are opting out? Iowa would seem to have the edge there, with a lack of players opting out and the chance to prove themselves against an SEC team.

Even with those factors to consider, I look at Iowa offensively and wonder how they are going to score against Tennessee’s defense. Yes, the reverse can be true as well, especially with a young QB in his first start.

But Iowa hasn’t proven that they can move the football against a decent defense, much less against one ranked in the top 40, like the Vols. Their starting QB, Deacon Hill, has 5 fumbles and 6 INTs, while completing less than 50% of his passes.

If Iowa can get in the end zone with their defense or special teams, they have a chance to win. Otherwise UT should have enough to get the victory, even with their depleted roster.

Fearless Prediction time …

Tennessee 17, Iowa 10