Depending on when you read this article, this is one of the stranger weeks of the year, at least for me. I put a butt-ton of effort, energy and emotion into the holidays, Christmas specifically, and then it’s over. It’s just over. And I’m sad. But there is a silver lining – the NCAA reserves its elite bowl games for the new year and the Hawkeyes, once again, find themselves playing in Tampa on January 2nd.
The Outback Bowl is nothing new to the Hawkeyes. In fact, this will be the fifth time the Hawks have been to Tampa under the Ferentz reign. Iowa finished 2016 with an 8-4 regular season record and as I mentioned in an earlier article, it was a bit of a disappointment. The Hawks came off a magical 2015 season, that unfortunately ended with a Rose Bowl curb-stomping at the hands of Stanford, finishing with a 12-2 record. And with all the key players back, Iowa seemed to be set up perfectly to pick up where they left off – it was not to be. But I’m still proud of the Hawks and the Outback Bowl feels like an appropriate finish.
Both Florida and the Hawks finished the 2016 regular season with 8-4 records. Iowa losing three of their four to much improved B1G opponents and the Gators losing three of their games to ranked teams. Having said that, it’s not that cut-and-dry. I’ll probably get raked over the coals for this but, no matter how you look at it, the SEC is the best conference in college football, and losing to Northwestern is simply not the same as losing to Alabama. Iowa has two big, black-eye losses (North Dakota State and Northwestern) this year, compared to Florida’s one (Arkansas). The Hawks did have some big wins that included an epic win over a #3 Michigan team at Kinnick late in the season. No one doubts Iowa’s ability to show up against the elite teams. Florida can hang their hats on wins over Georgia, South Carolina and LSU. Although those teams may be in what some might call “transition years”, they are still big dogs in a big conference. Florida is no slouch.
I’d put Iowa’s key players up against any other team’s in the nation. CJ Beathard has a cannon for an arm, and a game brain that will no doubt translate into an NFL career. Iowa’s one-two punch at RB, known as Wadley and Daniels, make Iowa the best rushing team in the B1G. Then there’s Desmond King at DB (I have no words). Florida’s QBs, Del Rio and Appleby did manage to combine for over 2500 passing yards this season, landing the Gators 6th in passing in the SEC, though their rushing and receiving was flat. But what might tip the scales Iowa’s favor might just be what got them to the Outback Bowl in the first place – their defense. The Hawk’s D is one of the best in the B1G and the nation. Iowa appears to have the playmakers that Florida lacks.
Where Iowa might struggle is in the receiver position. VandeBerg was Beathard’s favorite target until his foot injury in September. Although McCarron, Smith and Kittle did step up and attempt to fill his void, it left Iowa’s passing game with a bit to be desired. Another struggle is the Hawk’s play-calling. There’s nothing more frustrating than a two yard pass on 3rd & 8 (don’t get me started). C’mon, Greg Davis!
All-in-all, I feel that the Outback Bowl is a fitting finale to Iowa’s 2016 season. Iowa is not a flashy team. This is going to be a “ground and pound” battle of defenses with more FGs than TDs. Will Iowa be able to come up with the bigger plays or does Florida still have some of that Tebow magic fairy dust from years ago? I predict a three point win over the Gators. Either way it goes, I know that the Hawks, and their fans, will represent Iowa well. Go Hawks!