IOWA HAWKEYES (7-5) vs. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (6-6)
JAN. 2, 3:20 P.M. ET, EVERBANK FIELD, JACKSONVILLE, FLA. (ESPN)
Season highlights: Even with an early hiccup, the Hawkeyes still looked capable of contending in the Big Ten West Division after capping a 5-1 start with a couple conference wins that showed there might be signs of an explosive offense emerging for Kirk Ferentz. Iowa scored 45 points in a win over Indiana that seemingly had it on track to compete in the thick of the league race, and the Hawkeyes scored 48 points two weeks later against Northwestern. But it didn't ever get any better for the Hawkeyes.
Season lowlights: The season was marked by inconsistency, but it was relatively safe to assume the Hawkeyes weren’t going to rise up and pull off any major upsets once conference play arrived. They could never score a signature victory over the favorites in the Big Ten, but none of their defeats were nearly as embarrassing as the 51-14 demolition they were handed on the road at Minnesota at the start of what amounted to a four-team round-robin tournament to crown a champ in the West.
Player to watch: Before heading off to the NFL as a surefire first-round draft pick, hulking, athletic left tackle Brandon Scherff gets one last chance to bowl over college defensive ends for the Hawkeyes. Whether he was bouncing back with freakish quickness or simply showing off his incredible strength, Scherff at times hardly seems human. Some NFL general manager is going to be thrilled to get Scherff in the spring, once Ferentz gets one more road-grading performance out of him.
Motivation factor: The Hawkeyes will probably never have an easier path to a division title than the schedule they were handed this season, and they should be disappointed by how badly they squandered that opportunity on the way to a 7-5 record. Iowa doesn’t seem to be getting much return on Ferentz's rich contract, though it might be a bit more palatable if he can fire up his club enough to at least finish the season with an eighth victory.
-- Austin Ward
Season highlights: Making his first start of the season, sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs rallied the Volunteers to a 45-42 overtime win at South Carolina. Dobbs hit Jason Croom with the tying pass with 11 seconds left in regulation and finished the night with 301 passing yards and two touchdowns and 166 rushing yards and three more scores.
Season lowlights: The Vols struggled to close games successfully for much of the season, and that was a frequent problem when they got off to an 0-4 start in SEC play. Early losses to Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida all featured late Tennessee implosions after the Vols played competitively for much of those games.
Player to watch: Derek Barnett. The freshman defensive end has emerged as one of the nation’s top young pass-rushers. Barnett is tied for 13th nationally with 10 sacks and is tied for third with 20.5 tackles for loss. He hasn’t generated a lot of national attention -- probably because the Vols are 6-6 and needed a win last weekend against Vanderbilt to reach bowl eligibility -- but Barnett is already a star.
Motivation factor: This is Tennessee’s first bowl trip since 2010 and its first under second-year coach Butch Jones, so motivation should be fairly high. The Vols had to win three of their last four games to reach the postseason, and Jones has a point to prove about how the program is moving in the right direction under his leadership.
-- David Ching