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Nico Iamaleava garners the attention, but Tennessee's defense will determine College Football Playoff hopes in 2024

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton05/09/24


Nearly every Tennessee offseason storyline has centered on former 5-star signee Nico Iamaleava

From the NCAA’s probe into how the Vols recruited the quarterback to Tennessee’s taunting retort to the entire investigation, Iamaleava has been the subject of endless headlines since January. 

Iamaleava became the face of the new NIL world of college football, and once and for all, we’re going to find out if the $8 million man was actually worth it.  

But while Iamaleava and the Vols’ high-flying offense garners all the attention — particularly when it comes to many discussing the program’s College Football Playoff hopes in 2024 — Tennessee’s defense is actually the key to the team achieving its lofty goals this fall. 

Why Tennessee’s defense could determine the team’s ceiling in 2024

Last spring, head coach Josh Heupel declared that Tennessee “was not going to play good defense. We’re going to play elite defense.” 

The Vols didn’t quite meet those expectations, but that’s not to say they didn’t field a very good unit in 2023. Tim Banks’ defense continued to make strides in Year 3, finishing No. 2 in the SEC in yards per play allowed (4.97) and No. 3 in scoring. 

Tennessee was much-improved on a down-to-down basis (success rate went from 88th nationally to 40th), all while maintaining its hyper-aggressive style (SEC-high 101 tackles for loss, second-most takeaways). 

Thanks to the emergence of super-star pass rusher James Pearce Jr., the Vols hounded opposing quarterbacks (41 sacks, second most in the SEC), and with Joe Milton spraying balls all over the field, it was Tennessee’s defense that actually spearheaded their 9-4 season. 

So can Banks’ unit continue its upward momentum and make another leap this fall?

Nico Iamaleava is likely to provide moments of brilliance and frustrations in his first season as a starter. The Vols should be better at receiver this fall, and Heupel’s offense — even for those who derided his “Mickey Mouse” system — has proven it will score points. 

Few coaches can scheme up layups better than Heupel, and that should help Iamaleava immensely as he grows into the starting role. 

But Tennessee has a chance to be truly special in 2024, and just maybe, Heupel’s “elite” prediction was just a year too early. If the Vols maintain their recent standard of play and improve on a few key areas, they could field one of the best units in the country in 2024 — and that could be the difference between making or missing the CFP in the new 12-team field. 

The Vols must replace six defensive backs off last year’s roster, but outside of corner Kamal Hadden, the secondary wasn’t that good anyway. They ranked 98th nationally in passing defense success rate, and 11th (or worse) in SEC play in terms of yards per attempt allowed, passing efficiency and completion percentage. They spent the offseason looking to upgrade a leaky unit with additions of Jermod McCoy, a Freshman All-American at Oregon State last season, and Temple corner Jalen McMurray. MTSU safety Jakobe Thomas turned some heads this spring, while blue-chip freshman Boo Carter could push for a real role by midseason. 

If the secondary is able to provide more resistance, there’s not a whole lot else to fix. Banks (as well as venerable defensive line coach Rodney Garner) has squeezed Top 25 run defenses the last two seasons, and he solved the team’s red zone woes from 2021, too. 

Next up? Becoming more consistent on third downs. Tennessee’s hair-on-fire style has exposed them to getting gashed when the pass rush doesn’t get home — especially on third downs. Last season, the Vols finished 12th in third down defense (42.7%) against SEC opponents. Tennessee couldn’t get off the field against Florida (50%), Missouri (65%) or Georgia (69%), which was a major reason why it lost all three games. 

Should Tennessee shore up that bugaboo in 2024, then look out. 

The schedule sets up nicely for the Vols to recapture their 2022 magic and make another run at the CFP. There’s no Texas, Missouri, Ole Miss or LSU on the slate, while Florida, Alabama and Kentucky must all come to Neyland. Even if Iamaleava has some natural growing pains, the offensive fireworks should be there. 

The Vols’ ceiling will be determined by their defense, though. Most weeks they’ll have the best player on the field in James Pearce, and if the rest of pieces around him continue to make strides, there’s no reason why Tennessee can’t crack the dance this fall.