Tennessee vs. Iowa: 5 things to know about the Citrus Bowl matchup
Tennessee football will face off against No. 17 Iowa in Orlando at the Citrus Bowl on January 1.
The Vols finished the regular season 8-4 compared to Iowa’s 10-3 finish following their loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game Saturday night.
It was a good, not great season for Josh Heupel and Co. The Vols’s best win on the year is either Kentucky or Texas A&M, and Tennessee suffered losses to Alabama, Georgia, Mizzou and Florida. In other words, the Vols have struggled against teams of consequence this season.
And though Iowa may not be a Big Ten terror like Michigan, Penn State or Ohio State, the Hawkeyes do offer the potential for a nice ranked win to end Year 3 of the Josh Heupel era.
Jan. 1 is just under a month away. To hold you over, here are 5 things to know about the upcoming Citrus Bowl matchup between Tennessee and Iowa.
1. How we got here
Tennessee looked fairly set to play in the Gator Bowl about a week ago according to most projections. But the Vols shot right past the Gator and ReliaQuest bowls and will now play in the Citrus Bowl, which is almost always reserved for the top SEC team that did not reach a NY6 bowl.
Outside circumstances landed Tennessee in Orlando, a good portion of which have to do with Florida State being left out of the College Football Playoff.
Let’s back up a bit. At first, Louisville was assumed to be heading to the Orange Bowl on Saturday, win or lose. If the Cardinals were to beat Florida State, they’d be ACC champions. A loss meant the Cardinals would still be the top ACC team available – with a wrong assumption that the undefeated Seminoles would crack the 4-team field.
But because Florida State won and still did not crack the field, the Seminoles now head to the Orange Bowl against Georgia. That moves Louisville out of the NY6 field entirely with Ole Miss sliding in (the Rebels draw Penn State in the Peach Bowl but were previously expected to go to the Citrus Bowl). A domino effect prevailed from that point on in the ACC bowl hierarchy.
So that explains Ole Miss moving on from the Citrus Bowl, but why did Tennessee jump LSU?
It’s unknown for certain, but some reports indicate that the Citrus Bowl passed on LSU because the Tigers played the Citrus Bowl last season and also opened the year in Orlando against Florida State. An LSU Citrus Bowl once again would have meant 3 trips to Orlando in a calendar year.
2. Tennessee and Iowa have some bowl history
Tennessee and Iowa have faced off exactly 3 times throughout their histories. The Vols won the only bowl matchup between the 2, downing the Hawkeyes 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2015.
Allow me to refresh your memory, tenured Vols fans:
The last time Tennessee and Iowa played a bowl game, it went a little something like this pic.twitter.com/PG5xxMg6vQ
— Nathanael Rutherford (@Mr_Rutherford) December 3, 2023
Iowa has been to the Citrus Bowl twice. The Hawkeyes downed No. 11 LSU in 2005 and fell to Kentucky at the end of the 2021 season.
Tennessee has seen plenty of success at the Citrus Bowl, though it’s been a while since they’ve taken part. The Vols are 4-1 all-time with wins over Maryland in 1983, Ohio State in 1996, Northwestern in 1997 and Michigan in 2002. Tennessee fell to Penn State in the 1994 Citrus Bowl, 31-13.
3. Iowa has practically laid down for Top 25 opponents this season
Iowa may be 10-3 on the season, but it’s a very misleading 10-3. These Hawkeyes have had to fight and scrap for every single win they’ve earned.
Now, there’s something to be said about that ability to win strap in and win those tough games. That’s kind of become their identity over in Iowa City. But you can tell pretty quickly that this is no ordinary Top 25 team by looking at their results against strong opponents.
The Hawkeyes played in 2 games against ranked opponents this season and failed to score a single point in either of them. Iowa lost to Penn State 31-0 in mid-September and fell to Michigan Saturday night 26-0 in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. So, they’ve been outscored 57-0 in 2 games against top 25 opponents.
Far from ideal.
The Hawkeyes have only won 2 games this season by more than 10 points. They downed Western Michigan 41-10 and Rutgers 22-0. That win over Rutgers is probably Iowa’s best on the season, joining close wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska.
4. Your typical Iowa football team: Great defense, abysmal offense
Iowa finishes the season with the No. 4 scoring defense in the country, with opponents averaging just 13.2 points per game. Iowa also finished the season 130th in scoring offense, averaging just 16.6 points per game.
That’s just an unbelievable split for a Top 25 team.
Iowa’s offense has lacked creativity for some time, but the Hawkeyes have also suffered from some rough injury luck. Their top 2 tight ends – Erick All and Luke Lachey – were both lost for the season earlier in the year. Michigan transfer QB Cade McNamara also suffered a season-ending injury after a non-contact play against Michigan State in October. Deacon Hill currently runs the Iowa offense under center.
This entire article seems to have covered what Iowa does wrong so far. They do a few things very, very well.
The Hawkeyes are allowing opponents just under 275 yards of offense per game. They slow the pace and force you to play their brand of football, which is tough and gritty. it may be ugly sometimes, but it’s shown to work if you are not prepared for it.
Cooper DeJean, Iowa’s star cornerback and probably top player, suffered a season-ending lower leg injury in practice a few weeks ago and will not play against Tennessee. But the Hawkeyes still have plenty of talent along the defensive roster with DB Sebastian Castro and LB Jay Higgins. Mix in a strong D-line led by Logan Lee and Deontae Craig and the Vols’ offense should be tested well come January 1.
5. Don’t forget about special teams
It’s impossible to talk about Iowa football without discussing their special teams. You can make the joke that they’ve had a lot of practice, but this special teams unit has won games for the Hawkeyes in the past and it’s a major reason they are able to stay in most football games.
It all starts with Tory Taylor, who will be playing in his final game as an Iowa Hawkeye against the Volunteers to end the season. Taylor is averaging just under 48 yards per punt this season, which sits at 3rd in the country.
The standout Iowa punter has totaled 86 punts this season (average of 6.6 per game) with an incredible 4,119 punting yards, landing 30 inside the 20-yard line. That leads the country by more than 750 yards, folks.
However, for all their punting prowess and ability to pin you deep, Iowa has struggled to connect on field goals this season. Kicker Drew Stevens is 18-26 on the season, including 4-8 from 40-49 yards and 2-4 on anything beyond 50 yards.
The Vols are the more talented team, boast a much better offense and are better coached. Tennessee also has the better QB and a defense with more athletes than most teams the Hawkeyes have faced this season. No. 21 vs. No. 17 makes for a good top 25 matchup from the outside, but I’m not sure this one will ever be close barring some heavy opt-outs from Tennessee’s side of things.
If I had to bet, this one won’t be too aesthetically pleasing, either.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Iowa 9