Makes the Tag to Nico

Opt-outs will make us rethink the way a list like this works, but Joe Milton will find his way to the spirit of the idea here:

Tennessee Full-Season Starters at QB, Last 20 Years

  • Joe Milton, 2023 (regular season)
  • Josh Dobbs, 2015 & 2016
  • Tyler Bray, 2012 (Justin Worley subbed in during the loss to Vandy in Derek Dooley’s last game)
  • Jonathan Crompton, 2009
  • Erik Ainge, 2007

Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, and Casey Clausen gave the Vols the same face at quarterback every Saturday for 11 of 14 seasons from 1990-2003. Since then, it’s technically only happened with Ainge, Crompton, and Dobbs four times in 20 years. As Milton finishes his Tennessee career on his own terms, a tip of the cap to his steadfast nature. Other than Hendon Hooker, the last starting quarterback to throw 20+ TD passes with five or fewer interceptions was Peyton Manning. All the best to him in pursuit of the NFL.

As for Nico Iamaleava, he’ll pursue the Iowa defense. The Hawkeyes are second nationally in SP+ in that department, giving the five-star freshman real live first in his first meaningful action. Given our strength of schedule around here, a new QB facing a good team isn’t exactly a new idea:

Vol QB First Starts vs Ranked Teams, Post-Fulmer Era

  • 2023 Nico Iamaleava vs #20 Iowa
  • 2020 Harrison Bailey vs #6 Florida
  • 2019 Brian Maurer vs #3 Georgia
  • 2013 Josh Dobbs at #9 Missouri
  • 2013 Nathan Peterman at #19 Florida
  • 2011 Justin Worley vs #13 South Carolina

The Georgia team Maurer faced finished the 2019 season with the best defense in the country in SP+; Iowa’s currently rates higher (8.2 points allowed vs the average team, compared to 10.0 for 2019 Georgia). So the Hawkeyes, at least in the spreadsheets, present as stiff of a defensive challenge as any Vol QB has seen in their first start (give or take your opinion of Peyton Manning vs ’94 Washington State if anyone wants to remember those days of 10-9 glory).

When we researched some of this as the Vols were trying to find their way at quarterback in 2019 & 2020, we found that sometimes that first step is a real doozy, where even future greats like Dobbs fail to produce a single offensive touchdown. If Iowa’s defense lives up to their name and controls the Citrus Bowl, it won’t spell certain doom for the 2024 Vol offense.

The biggest difference here, of course, is Tennessee.

This isn’t a struggling Vol team making a mid-season change at QB. Even at 8-4, this Tennessee team is plenty capable…and it’ll be exciting to see how Nico impacts the math.

If you want a semi-relevant historical comparison, the closest we can come is probably 2006, when Jonathan Crompton took over for an injured Erik Ainge to face LSU (who finished #1 in SP+ and #2 in defense) then Arkansas (15th in defense). Those Vols were good, game, and a bad call on a fumble away from taking down the Tigers in Knoxville. Those opponents obviously offered more in terms of offense than Iowa should as well, etc.

But in terms of an exciting young quarterback playing on a good Tennessee team going against a great defense? And just in terms of pure intrigue, the ways this performance could color the conversation headed into 2024?

This match-up is a pretty good one.

Go Vols.

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5 months ago

Will, thanks for all the great analyses. Agree, this game will be interesting! Go Vols!

Sam Hensley
Sam Hensley
4 months ago

So, that debut went well!!!