It’s Nico time in Tennessee. After Joe Milton III announced Wednesday that he would be opting out of the Citrus Bowl to focus on the NFL Draft, talk immediately shifted to highly touted Tennessee Football freshman Nico Iamaleava, the $8 million man who would take the program to the next level under Josh Heupel.
All of that was supposed to happen in 2024, and with the return of key players like Cooper Mays, Omari Thomas and Keenan Pili along with the addition of more elite receivers like Mike Matthews and Chriz Brazzell, it became even more likely. Heisman talk for Iamaleava was already legitimate to bring up given Josh Heupel’s system.
Now, though, the biggest hindrance to Iamaleava becoming the first Heisman winner in Tennessee Football history has been removed: offseason hype. It’s hard for first-year starters to win the Heisman Trophy because voters are often partial to players they have heard about since the start of the year.
If Iamaleava didn’t play against Iowa, he would be heading into 2024 with that major disadvantage. Now, though, he has a golden opportunity not just to make a name for himself but to do it against a defense that is perceived, not proven, to be among the best in the nation this year.
Iowa has the fourth ranked scoring defense in the nation, giving up just over 13 points a game, and their pass defense is ranked sixth in the nation, giving up just 172.2 yards per game. They are second in passing yards per attempt allowed with just five.
However, the story of Iowa’s defense is one of a team taking advantage of absolutely horrendous offenses. They played two Power Five teams who weren’t outside of the top 70 in scoring offense all year, the Michigan Wolverines and Penn State Nittany Lions, and lost 31-0 and 26-0 respectively.
In terms of pass defense specifically, eight of the 10 teams Iowa played were outside the top 70 in passing offense. Simply put, they were never tested all year except for against Michigan and Penn State, and neither of those teams ever needed to throw it on them.
So how does this pertain to Iamaleava? Well, if Iowa’s defense is truly overrated and Iamaleava cashes in by throwing to speedy receivers Iowa has never had to cover given its Big Ten West competition, he could have a field day in his first start. Perception will be that he torched a team that didn’t allow one power five game total to go over 40 points.
Combine that with his NIL hype and his recruiting rankings coming out, as he was the second-highest rated quarterback only to Arch Manning, and the Heisman talk will shoot through the roof throughout the offseason. Immediately, Iamaleava will generate necessary buzz.
This won’t be Peyton Manning type buzz either. In 1997, Manning was the victim of arguably Heisman overhype, which is what led to Charles Woodson winning the award. Iamaleava won’t be the season-long favorite or even the favorite to enter the year. What’s key, though, is being in the conversation.
Starting for Tennessee Football in the Citrus Bowl is exactly what he needs to launch that campaign. Don’t be surprised if he goes out and throws for over 300 yards and four touchdowns against what should be a very overrated defense. Then the Vols enter the offseason with sky-high expectations once again.