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TaxSlayer Bowl Preview: Iowa vs. Tennessee

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Iowa wraps up the non-playoff B1G bowls with a trip to Jacksonville on January 2nd to take on the Tennessee Volunteers. How will they do? Well, they'll do.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

TaxSlayer Bowl (aka Gator Bowl)

Who: Iowa (7-5) v. Tennessee (6-6)

Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida

When: January 2nd, 2:20PM CT

TV: ESPN (also on ESPN Radio)

Line: Tennessee (-3.5) // OU: 51.5

Friday brings both a sense of joy and dread for Iowa Hawkeye fans. It's a joyous event because we're finally able to move past the aftermath of Kirk Ferentz shrugging off the meltdown loss to Nebraska as "that's football." It's a new year and the Hawkeyes have an opportunity to start it off with a bowl win. We've been told that C.J. Beathard will play despite Jake Rudock being named the starter and we'll assume that all of the mistakes that plagued the team the final four weeks will be addressed. We'll assume.

There's also the sense of dread. Dread that Iowa will come out and show that they learned absolutely nothing over the final four weeks. That C.J. Beathard won't be put in a position to be successful and will see the field for only one or two series. That if Beathard doesn't get enough playing time he'll ultimately transfer. That Iowa will play like a 7-5 football team because that's what they are and that's what Iowa football has become under Kirk Ferentz. Nothing new. Same ol'. 7-5. Forever and ever, amen.

Joy and dread.

The Tennessee Volunteers should feel nothing but joy about playing in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It's the first bowl they've appeared in since 2010 and the first under head coach Butch Jones. Despite starting out 3-5, the Vols finished strong by winning three of their remaining four games and finished the year 6-6. Going .500 may not seem all that impressive but when your losses are @ #4 Oklahoma, @ #12 Georgia, Florida, @ #3 Ole Miss and @ #19 Missouri I think we can cut the Vols some slack.

What's that? Oklahoma and Florida were awful this year? DON'T RUIN THE NARRATIVE.

An interesting tidbit about this matchup is that it will continue the tradition of Iowa and Tennessee playing each other on a neutral field. The Hawkeyes and Vols have only played each other twice, both in the 1980's. Their first meeting was in the 1982 Peach Bowl, played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Georgia, where the Chuck Long led the Hawkeyes to a 28-22 win over Johnny Majors' Volunteers. Their second meeting was in the now defunct Kickoff Classic played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. There, the Volunteers defeated the Hawkeyes 23-22 on a last second field goal.

Fun fact about the Kickoff Classic game: Dan McGwire, younger brother of Mark McGwire, started for Iowa.

Let's talk some specifics.

When Iowa is on Offense:

Iowa Hawkeyes Offense

Tennessee Volunteers Defense

Total Offense

398.3

359.9

Total Defense

Rushing Offense

156.3

162.1

Rushing Defense

Passing Offense

242

197.8

Passing Defense

Scoring Offense

28.3

23.9

Scoring Defense

Red Zone Offense

0.78

0.96

Red Zone Defense

The Volunteers are better at defending the pass than the run so you can expect Iowa to do what they always do: come out intending to pound it down their opponents' throats. The question will be whether or not the coaching staff decides to make smart choices when calling run plays. By that I mean: will they use Mark Weisman correctly? Weisman, Iowa's leading rusher in 2014, is averaging a career worst 3.9 YPC. It might have something to do with him slowing down. It might have something to do with Iowa continuously calling zone stretch plays that require the running back to actually have burst, something Weisman doesn't, to pick up yards. Whatever it was, Iowa built their running game around Weisman this season and it wasn't pretty.

The Hawkeyes went with other backs like Jordan Canzeri, Akrum Wadley and Jonathan Parker but always fell back on Weisman due to injuries, fumbling woes or flat out stubbornness by the coaching staff. If Iowa comes out simply trying to run off tackle with Weisman every play they're going to fail miserably. They'll need to switch it up on an "athletic" Tennessee defense that has watched game tape of Iowa's repetitive run game and expect ZONE STRETCH FOREVER AND EVER. And this is where the passing game comes in.

If you've watched an Iowa game this season you know the story of Jake Rudock. He's a smart, sometimes indecisive quarterback who struggles with the deep ball and has a tendency to check down. But he's also what Kirk Ferentz wants: someone who completes a high percentage of passes and doesn't turn the ball over. He's the "smart guy." A real "game manager." The "safe bet" quarterback.

Then there's this guy:

"They call me...sex cannon."

(Via The Des Moines Register)

C.J. Beathard is the fan favorite in Iowa City. Y'know the old saying that "the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town"? Yeah, that's what we've got here. Beathard unquestionably has a stronger arm than Rudock, can get the ball out in a hurry and can use his legs more effectively. He's also more of a risk taker and struggles managing the line of scrimmage, which may be the biggest concern. I can't count how many times Iowa either had to call a timeout or took a delay of game penalty when Beathard was on the field because he struggled getting the team to the line. There seems to be this misconception that he's turnover prone but the stats don't show it this year. He only threw one interception.

Avoiding diving into a full-fledged QB debate, if I haven't already, I'll summarize it as follows. Jake Rudock is the safe bet. He can successfully manage the short passing game, avoids turnovers and will take a deep shot every now and then. C.J. Beathard can do all the things Jake Rudock can't. He takes shots down field regularly because he actually has the arm to throw down field and can scramble but also takes risks and struggles with game management. Those are the pros and cons in a nutshell.

The question this Friday is how Iowa responds if Tennessee is stifling their running game and they have to rely on the pass to open things up. Do they think that running the West Coast short passing game will be successful against Curt Maggitt and the Vols linebackers? Or do they run play action and throw the deep ball? Because prediction time: I think Iowa will struggle running the ball and they will have to throw on Tennessee if they want to be successful. How they confront that challenge will determine how their offense fares all day.

Finally, Iowa has to score when they get into the red zone. The Vols are 125th in the nation in red zone defense and have allowed their opponent to score in 27 of 28 red zone visits. That's terrible. Moving the ball will be a chore for Iowa (it always is) so they have to take advantage of every opportunity.

When Iowa is on Defense:

Tennessee Volunteers Offense

Iowa Hawkeyes Defense

Total Offense

363

334.5

Total Defense

Rushing Offense

135

158.8

Rushing Defense

Passing Offense

228

175.8

Passing Defense

Scoring Offense

27.6

24

Scoring Defense

Red Zone Offense

.91

.87

Red Zone Defense

It's all about Joshua Dobbs for the Volunteers. Dobbs, the sophomore QB who took over for Justin Worley, only played in four games but went 3-1, threw for 1,077 yards and ran for another 393. He also combined for fourteen total touchdowns, eight through the air and the remainder on the ground. Needless to say, he's a playmaker.

Then again, he's a playmaker because he has to be. The Tennessee offensive line was atrocious this season, allowing 42 sacks and the Vols 135 rushing yards per game ranked 100th in the nation.  Dobbs rushed for so many yards because the pocket usually broke down and he had to scramble.

Scrambling quarterbacks have historically given Iowa trouble so you can expect them to utilize the raider package (LINEMEN STANDING UP IS CRAZY TALK) or other nickel sets when the Vols are in passing situations. Drew Ott and Louis Trinca-Pasat, who combined for 14.5 sacks, will need to have big games if they want to slow down the Volunteer offense. Too often were Iowa's linebackers/defensive backs found on an island because the quarterback had enough time to throw downfield.

The Volunteers don't have any superstars at wide receiver but they do have a guy named Pig. Yes, they actually have a guy named Pig. Well, his real name is actually "Alton" but they call him Pig Howard. Pig is Tennessee's leading WR with 589 yards and is the type of guy who gives Iowa fans Stefon Diggs flashbacks: 5'8, 185lbs with 4.4 speed. Despite Pig being the leader in yardage, he only caught one touchdown. So you might ask: well where did all the other touchdowns come from? Well...about that.

Tennessee has two sophomore receivers, Marquez North and Jason Croom, who are both taller than 6'3 and combined for eight touchdowns. Von Pearson, a 6'3 junior, caught another four. You want to talk about the "SEC athlete"? Well, North and Croom are "SEC athletes" who have the SEC SPEED. Both were four star recruits, both are huge and both are fast. Fortunately, they're still young and haven't developed into the MONSTARS...yet. Expect Iowa to avoid man to man coverage when all three of those guys are in.

The Pick:

Iowa fans can be as down as they want about this bowl game but I can guarantee you that the players aren't. It's cold as hell in Iowa right now. It's nice and sunny in Jacksonville, it's January and it's Florida. Ferentz always has his teams ready to play in bowl games and Iowa is 8-3 ATS in their last 11 bowl appearances. Iowa will struggle on the ground but Rudock and Beathard will BOTH be successful, giving Iowa a slight edge on the offensive front.

Tennessee, ecstatic about being in their first postseason contest since 2010, will play excellent defense but a mistake (or two) by Dobbs will be the difference maker in the game.

Final Score: Iowa 21, Tennessee 17