July 19, 2024

Why Tennessee threatens to bust 2024 Blue-Chip Ratio with Nico Iamaleava spearheading Josh Heupel’s offense

Tuesday’s grand unveiling of the annual Blue-Chip Ratio offered a glimpse at the teams history says are capable of winning college football’s 2024 national title. Unsurprisingly, the highest percentage of four- and five-star prospects in recent years began with Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia.

But there was a big-name brand noticeably absent from the list that could have the ingredients to do what Washington did a year ago and make a national title push, despite missing the Blue-Chip Ratio. That team — identified by BCR author Bud Elliott as an outlier to watch — is Tennessee.

“By the ‘narrowly misses the minimum threshold + transcendent QB’ standard, Tennessee (46%) is the most obvious candidate to bust the ratio in 2024,” Elliot wrote. “QB Nico Iamaleava has special physical talent, and if Tennessee can stay healthy at offensive line and in the secondary, perhaps the Volunteers could pull off something special.”

Tennessee is 20-6 over the past two seasons under coach Josh Heupel and has already threatened to bust the BCR once under his direction. The Volunteers narrowly missed out on the four-team College Football Playoff in 2022, finishing 11-2 with an Orange Bowl victory, after rising to No. 1 in that season’s initial CFP Rankings.

Though the Vols dipped to 9-4 in 2023, the 2024 team may share a critical trait with the 2022 Vols: elite quarterback play — or, at least, the potential for it. Former Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker finished fifth in the 2022 Heisman Trophy voting and would have finished even higher if he hadn’t missed the season’s end due to injury. Iamaleava is experienced, but the Vols have great expectations for him. 

All-in on Nico Iamaleava

After spending a season as Joe Milton’s apprentice, Iamaleava looks like the program’s next megastar QB. The former five-star prospect ranked behind only Arch Manning among all players in the Class of 2023. While Iamaleava’s playing time was scarce as a true freshman, he shined when called upon.

Iamaleava deftly handled the challenge of facing Iowa‘s elite defense while drawing his first start in Tennessee’s 35-0 Citrus Bowl win over the Hawkeyes. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown as part of a four-score day, and the Vols racked up more points on Iowa than any other team in 2023.

With Iamaleava entering his second year in the program, the Volunteers are expected to creep towards the level of ruthless offensive efficiency that made them the nation’s No. 1 team in total offense during the 2022 season.

A year ago, Washington finished outside the Blue-Chip Ratio but used elite quarterback play with Michael Penix Jr. to come within a game of busting it. Though the Huskies ultimately fell to Michigan in the CFP National Championship, their 14-1 campaign was a prime example of how a team can use an elite quarterback and well-refined offensive scheme to overcome any disadvantages.

A best-case scenario for Tennessee in 2024 would look similar.

Iamaleava is among the top 10 preseason favorites to win the Heisman Trophy at multiple sportsbooks. If the Vols get anything close to Hooker’s production from him, then they could replicate Washington’s run a season ago and threaten to bust the Blue-Chip Ratio.

Wideouts a hurdle?

In a broad sense, the Volunteers appear to be the most likely team to bust the BCR, but there is another hurdle they must overcome. To do what Washington did last season, the Vols must take massive strides at receiver. 

Three Washington receivers were selected within the first three rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft, highlighted by No. 9 overall pick Rome Odunze. Matching that level of high-caliber receiver play will be a tall order for the Volunteers unless a couple of breakout stars emerge and perform at all-conference levels.

Leading receiver Squirrel White is back after making 67 grabs for 803 yards and two touchdowns, but no other wide receiver on Tennessee’s 2024 roster caught more than 20 passes for the Volunteers in 2023. A couple of names to watch are Bru McCoy, a veteran whose 2023 season was derailed by injury, and Chris Brazzell II, a Tulane transfer who made 44 grabs for the Green Wave as a redshirt freshman. 

Dont’e Thornton is a candidate to do more after making 13 grabs for 224 yards as a transfer from Oregon. The Volunteers also landed two of the top 15 wide receiver prospects from the Class of 2024, Mike Matthews and Braylon Staley.

There’s enough talent in the room for Iamaleava to rack up silly numbers and send the Vols shooting back past 500 yards per game of total offense. But the difference between Tennessee’s 2024 receiver group and Washington’s 2023 unit is that the Huskies entered their banner year with surefire stars. Odunze and Jalen McMillan both surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in 2022, and Ja’lynn Polk was a legitimate option.  

During their breakthrough 2022 season, the Volunteers deployed Biletnikoff Winner Jalin Hyatt and a wide receiver arsenal that featured five players with at least 30 catches and multiple touchdowns. Returning closer to that standard will be key in 2024.

If Tennessee can do it, we’ll be hearing a lot of Rocky Top in 2024 as the Volunteers mount a challenge to the Blue-Chip Ratio.