Here's what Hawkeye reporter Chad Leistikow and columnist Rick Brown are looking for leading up to Iowa's Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl game against Tennessee. Andrea Melendez
IOWA CITY, Ia. – A dig inside the Tennessee football program reveals a revved-up fan base, an exciting dual-threat quarterback and cautious optimism for the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl game against Iowa.
While Iowa fans cope with an unsettling 7-5 record, the Volunteers might have put together the most gratifying 6-6 season in college football.
"This Tennessee fan base, honestly, couldn't be more excited," said Paul Fortenberry, a staff writer for Volquest.com.
Oddsmakers have made the Volunteers a 3.5-point favorite to send Iowa to a 7-6 finish in Jacksonville, Fla.
One big reason Tennessee is perceived as the program with more momentum is sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who rose from third-stringer to start Tennessee's final four games.
Dobbs went 3-1 as a starter, including his electric debut in which he set a UT record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 166. Oh, and he also passed for 301 yards in that 45-42 overtime win against South Carolina.
"He has changed absolutely everything they've been able to do on offense," Fortenberry said.
Justin Worley started the first seven games, but shoulder surgery ended his season. Dobbs came on in relief early in a 34-20 loss to Alabama and has been the talk of the Vols since, making plays with his arm (the 6-3, 216-pound Georgian was recruited as a pro-style quarterback) and legs.
"A lot of fans have wondered why he wasn't the quarterback from the beginning of the season," said Matt Slovin, a Vols beat writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean.
Dobbs de-committed from Arizona State to join coach Butch Jones' first Tennessee recruiting class in 2013. Recruiting underscores another key component of this Volunteers team that stands before Iowa: It's on the rise, but it's young.
Jones' Class of 2014 was ranked No. 5 in the country, and five true freshmen from that group are Tennessee starters — including two names you'll hear a lot in coming weeks, running back Jalen Hurd (994 total yards) and defensive end Derek Barnett (20.5 tackles for loss).
Jones, rumored as a possible successor to Brady Hoke at Michigan, was awarded a healthy raise Monday to keep him in Knoxville through the 2020 season.
The Volunteers don't boast any marquee wins, but it's hard to knock any of their losses en route to their first bowl bid since 2010: at Oklahoma, at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama and Missouri.
So in Tennessee, Iowa is facing a battle-tested program with fresh buzz. But behind the Southeastern Conference pedigree and promise, there are holes.
"The offensive line is probably the most glaring weakness," Slovin said.
On defense, Tennessee is thin on the interior line, deploying an undersized three-man rotation.
The trench battle should tip in the Hawkeyes' favor, with Big Ten offensive lineman of the year Brandon Scherff and two of their stop stars at defensive tackle in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat.
Meanwhile, Tennessee wants the outcome to be decided by playmakers against a vertically challenged Iowa offense.
"The teams that have really hurt Tennessee have been the teams that have had just explosive difference-makers on the offensive side," said Fortenberry, ticking off Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's Amari Cooper. "Just looking at Iowa, it's kind of tough to find that guy."
TAXSLAYER BOWL SPECIFICS
Matchup: Iowa (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) vs. Tennessee (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
Kickoff, TV: 2:20 p.m. CT, EverBank Field (77,511), Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN)
Tickets: Iowa fans are encouraged to purchase tickets (club level, $125; main level, $85) online at hawkeyesports.com; on the phone at 1-800-IA-HAWKS; or in person at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa was assigned sections 130, 131, 134, 135, 139, 142, 143, 229, 230, 231, 232, 233, 234, 235, 240, 241, 242 and 243 at EverBank Field in its allotment of 8,000 tickets.