Jacksonville, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - These days just breaking even can be good enough to earn a bowl bid. The Tennessee Volunteers found that out firsthand, as they will clash with the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl on Friday afternoon.
Tennessee (6-6) was a model of inconsistency throughout the regular season, winning back-to-back outings only twice, taking down Utah State and Arkansas State in non-conference play to kick off the campaign and then later in the schedule with triumphs over South Carolina and Kentucky, with a bye week in between. The program was a mere 3-5 in conference play and finished tied for fourth place in the Eastern Division of the SEC with the Gamecocks.
The Vols needed a win in the regular-season finale versus Vanderbilt just to become bowl eligible and played just well enough to squeeze out a 24-14 victory in the meeting at the end of November.
"It means everything," Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs said of becoming bowl eligible. "That was our goal coming into this season. We wanted to get to a bowl game and get our seniors to a bowl game and then progress from there. This is a stepping-stone to this program and it's definitely an exciting time to be here. I'm excited to be going to a bowl game."
As for the Hawkeyes, they too had to buckle down and play tough in order for a postseason opportunity to become available. Perhaps most disappointing for Iowa is the fact that the team started off the campaign 5-1, with the lone loss being a 20-17 setback to rival Iowa State, and then limped to the finish. Iowa dropped consecutive games against Wisconsin and Nebraska to close out the regular season, but still earned an invitation to the postseason after placing fourth in the West Division of the Big Ten Conference with a record of 4-4.
Iowa, which lost to Florida in the 1983 Gator Bowl, 14-6, is back in the postseason for the second straight year and playing in the Sunshine State yet again, which is good news for native son and starting corner Greg Mabin.
"It is always nice to be back in Florida," says Mabin. "It (Jacksonville) is not quite home, but it is close enough. The weather sure is nice.
"Family and friends from all over are trying to come to the game."
Mabin and Co. are hoping for better results this time around though, having lost two straight bowl games, including last year's Outback Bowl versus LSU (21-14). Iowa is now 14-12-1 dating back to the 1957 Rose Bowl, where it defeated Oregon State, 35-19.
Over on the other side, Tennessee's bowl roots reach back to the 1939 Orange Bowl and a 17-0 defeat of Oklahoma. However, the Vols dropped a 30-27 decision to North Carolina in double-overtime in the 2010 Music City Bowl, which means the program is now just a single game over .500 (25-24) in bowl competition.
The series between these two teams is knotted at one game apiece, the most recent battle taking place in New Jersey in the 1987 Kickoff Classic where the Vols slipped by with a 23-22 triumph. The first encounter pitted the programs in the 1982 Peach Bowl, with the Hawkeyes capturing a 28-22 win.
The Iowa defense again led the charge this season, ranking 18th in the country in yards allowed (334.5 ypg) and eighth in the number of passing yards surrendered (175.8 ypg), helping the program limit foes to 24.0 ppg, a number that would have been considerably lower if not for the fact that the group surrendered a combined 89 points to Maryland and Minnesota in a span of just three weeks.
John Lowdermilk led the charge with 95 tackles, adding a team-best three interceptions -- one returned for a touchdowns -- and a couple of forced fumbles to his stat line, while Drew Ott made 12 of his 55 stops behind the line of scrimmage and also led the program with eight sacks. Louis Trinca- Pasat, who registered the lone safety for the squad, logged 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks of his own.
Another strength for Iowa this season was the team's disciplined play which resulted in a mere 3.5 penalties per contest, tied for second-fewest in the nation, resulting in only 28.9 ypg assessed against the Hawkeyes, also second in the FBS.
On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Jake Rudock kept the unit moving with his 62.6 percent accuracy and 218.5 ypg through the air. He accounted for 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions, minimizing mistakes in order to get Iowa into a bowl game. Rudock spread the ball around quite well, as 10 players caught a TD pass from either him or C.J. Beathard.
Mark Weisman was the main contributor on the ground with his 802 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt, which just happened to be the team's overall average for the campaign.
Aiming to stop Weisman and the rest of the Hawkeyes will be Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt for the Tennessee defense. Barnett started nine of 12 games for the Volunteers and still saw enough time on the field to lead the program with a staggering 20.5 tackles for loss. His 10 sacks was second only to Maggitt who registered 11 sacks and 14.0 TFL on 43 total stops.
Also making a significant impact for the Tennessee defense was Justin Coleman, who not only made 41 tackles, he also led the way with four interceptions. Cameron Sutton and Todd Kelly Jr. each added three picks of their own, the former pacing the program with 14 passes defended and 11 pass breakups.
At the top of the tackles list for Tennessee was A.J. Johnson with his 101 takedowns, nine of those being for negative yardage, while adding two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.
Justin Worley began the season as the starting quarterback for the Vols, but a shoulder injury put him on the shelf and opened the door for Dobbs who ended up converting 61.5 percent of his passes for eight TDs and five INTs. Dobbs also provided the program with an added run option with his 393 yards and team-best six TDs on the ground.
Jalen Hurd led the way in the running department with 777 net yards on 174 attempts, but he made it into the end zone just three times. Hurd was also second in receptions with 33 for 217 yards and two scores, trailing only Alton Howard who turned 52 receptions into 589 yards and a single TD.
Unfortunately, the Tennessee offense is one that struggled quite a bit, producing only 363.0 ypg to rank 100th in the nation heading into this week. The rushing attack was also 100th as it averaged 135.0 ypg, but at least the team could be proud of a red-zone offense that scored 91.8 percent of the time, eighth-best nationally.