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Getting You Set: Citrus Bowl, Preview & Prediction

Citrus Bowl

The Cheez-It Citrus Bowl kicks off on New Year’s Day and will feature one of the unique matchups of Bowl Season. Iowa won 10 games this season and played in the Big Ten Championship Game despite having the nation’s worst offense. Its defense, however, was top five in both scoring and total yards. Tennessee finished the season 8-4 and was one of the best offenses in the nation. It finished 16th nationally in total offense, averaging 31.5 points per game. Iowa only scored more than 20 points in four games this season. The polar opposites don’t end with stats. The differences in the scheme on both sides of the ball are significant. The Citrus Bowl might be one of the more fascinating matchups of Bowl Season.

Opt-Outs in the Citrus Bowl

Tennessee loses six starters for the Citrus Bowl to either the transfer portal or the NFL. Highlighting the group are starting quarterback Joe Milton, and the team’s top two running backs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small. Milton tossed 20 touchdown passes this season to just five interceptions. Wright tallied over 1,000 yards on the ground, and Small was the team’s second-leading rusher. Defensive end Tyler Baron is probably the most significant player to hit the transfer portal on defense. He had six sacks on the year and 10.5 tackles for loss.

For Iowa, there are virtually no key missing players. Wide receiver Diante Vines was the only Hawkeye with significant playing time to enter the transfer portal. Cooper DeJean is no longer walking around in a boot, but he will not play in the Citrus Bowl due to injury.

Nico Iamaleava

Tennessee will be the most prolific offense Iowa has faced this season. The Volunteer offense averages 453 yards per game. Iowa has not allowed an opponent over 400 yards in 27 straight games. Replacing Milton at quarterback will be the highly-talented freshman Nico Iamaleava. The former five-star and number-two quarterback in the 2023 class has thrown one touchdown in four appearances this year. Iamaleava has not played a lot, but his skill set is dangerous. At 6’-5”, he stands tall in the pocket but has excellent mobility and escapability. Not to mention, Iamaleava is an accurate passer and can deliver the football to any part of the field with a strong arm. He’ll be just the fourth true freshman Volunteer to start a bowl game in program history, joining Peyton Manning, among others.

The Tennessee Veer-and-Shoot

On Monday afternoon, the intriguing matchup is going to be Iowa’s defense against the Josh Heupel veer-and-shoot offense. The Vols’ offense is not quite the level that it operated at in 2022, but it still ranks 16th nationally in yards per game. The basis of this offense can be described as a zone run with a vertical spread, wide-split passing attack. Despite the appearance of a pass-first offense, it’s actually a run-first attack.

The basis of the offense includes a heavy dose of run-scheme. That includes quick screen passes, quarterback draws, and inside zone runs. In doing this, the Vols’ will line up receivers in wide splits – outside the numbers – forcing the defense to stretch wide. This puts stress on the secondary when it wants to get involved in that run game or bring pressure. 

The Slot Receiver

The offense utilizes fast wide receivers that include the important slot wide receiver position. Ramel Keyton and Squirrel Wright do just that. They lead the team in receptions and have excellent speed on the outside, and White is one of the best slot wide receivers in the nation. The receivers run stack releases that allow the slot to get a running start from behind the line of scrimmage on the defense. The slot then runs choice routes off of play action putting immense pressure on the defensive backs. 

Because of the wide splits and spread formation, the slot is often lined up on a safety or nickel. This creates a huge speed advantage. The combination of a speedy slot receiver, wide splits, and constant play action do not allow the defense to play base personnel. Oftentimes, the best way to defend this offense is with five or six defensive backs. Iowa does have a talented player in Sebastian Castro at the CASH position. It’s essentially a fifth defensive back in Phil Parker’s defense, and he’ll be tested all afternoon in the Citrus Bowl.

How The Iowa Defense Can Respond

Without DeJean in the secondary, the wide receiver matchup with Iowa’s defensive backs will be an important piece of this bowl game. Tennessee runs with tempo, and the constant quick hits of its veer-and-shoot are going to be difficult to defend. Iowa is a defense that does not allow the big play, giving up just 18 plays of 20-plus yards. No other team has allowed less than 29 such plays. 

The quick hits are going to accumulate yards, and the tempo will make it difficult for Iowa to sub. It also makes it difficult to blitz. The splits on offense force defenders to show their pressure early if they want to get home on a blitz. Iowa’s advantage is that Iamaleava is young, and the Hawkeyes do run one of the most confusing defenses for opposing quarterbacks. They’ll try to confuse looks for the former five-star, and the AP Third-Team All-American in Castro is who you want guarding the slot.

The Citrus Bowl: Brian Ferentz’s Finale

The team that takes the field on New Year’s Day for Iowa will look nearly identical to what we’ve seen in the latter half of the season. Deacon Hill is expected to start at quarterback. He’s completed 49% of his throws this season for just over 1,000 yards. He has five touchdowns, six interceptions, and five fumbles lost. Iowa will be thin behind Hill. Joe Labas entered the transfer portal after not seeing the field once since starting last year’s Music City Bowl. 

The Hawkeyes have scored two or fewer touchdowns in every game this season but two. The offense has accumulated greater than 300 yards just twice this season, and it’s averaging an FBS-worst 4.02 yards per play. It would be fascinating to see Brian Ferentz try new looks, work the ball to Kaleb Brown in unique ways, and attempt to play with nothing to lose. However, that has never been the product, despite the two-year run at the bottom of the sport. As typical for the Ferentz-led group, expect a solid sequence of script plays to open the game. But things will likely begin to slow down in the middle of the game, and the offense will continue to work with a razor-thin margin for error. 

Citrus Bowl Prediction:

Tennessee – 27

Iowa – 9

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