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How well do we know the Vols that will be playing in the Citrus Bowl?

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Tennessee went 8-4, had nice wins against South Carolina, Texas A&M and Kentucky, and scored over 40 points in five games.

But that team isn’t the same one facing Iowa in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl.

You could say that about most teams NOT participating in the College Football Playoff.

Tennessee’s roster has been ravaged by the transfer portal and opt outs.

When Tennessee takes the field in Orlando, it won’t have its starting quarterback, top two running backs, a valued starter at defensive end and six defensive backs.

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How’s that for continuity?

Sixth-year senior Joe Milton opted out more than 10 days ago – he made it official Wednesday – when he was told freshman Nico Iamaleava was going to start the Citrus Bowl.

You can’t blame Milton – who stuck with Tennessee when Hendon Hooker became a two-year starter – and you can’t blame head coach Josh Heupel, who wants to get a better look at what Iamaleava brings to the table in a preview of the 2024 season.

Iamaleava, a five-star recruit who played 52 snaps and threw just 26 passes in mop-up duty, will be challenged by one of the best defenses in the country.

Iowa (10-3) ranks No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense (13.2 points per game), No. 5 in total defense (274.8 yards per game) and No. 8 in passing defense (172.2 yards per game).

It won four Big Ten games when scoring 15 or fewer points. It lost a Big Ten game 12-10.

Iowa’s offense ranks among the five worst in the nation in most major categories. It averages 16.6 points per game, 115.7 rush yards per game, 123.2 pass yards per game. Only the three service academies averaged fewer passing yards per game. And quarterback Deacon Hill (who replaced injured starter Cade McNamara in September) is completing fewer than 50% of his passes with five touchdowns and six interceptions.

When your best weapon is arguably your punter – Tory Taylor averages 47.9 per boot – you’ve got problems.

But Iowa hasn’t incurred as many bowl departures as Tennessee. The Hawkeyes are without two tight ends, an offensive lineman, a running back and star defensive back Cooper Dejean, who was hurt after Game 10.

Iamaleava’s top two wideouts will be Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White. Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb did nothing to strike fear into opposing defenses – they combined for 31 catches – when they replaced Bru McCoy and Dont’e Thornton, both out for the season due to injuries.

Perhaps tight ends Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles will be a bigger part of the pass-game game plan.

UT will miss 1,000-yard rusher Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small. Dylan Sampson is a quality back, but you can’t expect him to get 25 touches in a game when he hasn’t all season. Sampson did have 21 touches against Kentucky by averaged fewer than 10 touches per game. Cam Seldon has been a seldom used running back (12 carries, 52 yards).  

While Iowa’s passing game is pedestrian, it is going against a very inexperienced secondary. Don’t be surprised if the Vols have a bust or two on the backend leading to some splash plays by Iowa.

In a close game, it could be the difference.

This could be one of the lowest scoring games of the bowl season. Vegas has the over/under at 35.5 points.

Iowa has been in 11 games this season in which the combined score was less than 40 points. It has been in seven consecutive games in which the combined score was less than 30. In its three defeats, Iowa scored a combined 10 points.

Iowa might hit a couple of big pass plays against UT’s depleted secondary, but Iamaleava might hit a few splash plays against an unsuspecting defense.

And when you give Heupel a month to prepare, you can bet he’ll dial up some new wrinkles.

And that should be enough for the Vols (a 6-point favorite) to get a second straight bowl win.

Prediction: Tennessee 20, Iowa 13.

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