Big Steaks and Big Stakes: Gators vs. Iowa

If the Florida Gators were to reach the Outback Bowl, they were guaranteed a rematch. As it turns out, however, Urban Meyer's team didn't get the opponent most experts expected, but that only heightens the anticipation of the morning kickoff on Jan. 2.

What's deliciously ironic about this Outback Bowl (before we get into the specifics of the matchup) is that in a sport where politics and money dominate the bowl selection process, one of the Outback's two teams was likely to be undeserving of its ticket to Tampa. Initially, that team seemed to be South Carolina, who led a very (VERY) unofficial "tourism/revenue derby" as of Thanksgiving weekend. But then the SEC exerted some pressure, and in a shocking display, a thing called "common sense" entered the Outback's selection process. An eight-win Gator team that beat Georgia and Florida State overtook the Gamecocks, who won seven games with a schedule that was noticeably inferior to Florida's 2005 slate.

But meanwhile, on the Big Ten side of the equation, common sense did break down. A Michigan team that beat Iowa in Iowa City somehow fell below the Hawkeyes in the pecking order. After a week of intense speculation in which the SEC half of the Outback Bowl threatened to violate principles of basic fairness and justice, it was the Big Ten that, in the end, saw one of its member schools get the shaft. Michigan got a lower-tier December bowl against Nebraska, instead of a Gator team that, for a time, faced the real possibility of playing those very same Huskers in Shreveport. My, how things change. All of the injustices that seemed to be headed Florida's way made an abrupt turn and bowled over Michigan instead. As Outback Bowl momentum grew for Florida during the past week, Michigan seemed to be UF's increasingly likely opponent, in a rematch of the 2003 game won by the Wolverines. But now, the Outback reunion for the Gators comes against an Iowa team that shocked Chris Leak two years ago in the 2004 edition of this bowl. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

But now that Iowa is locked in as Florida's bowl opponent, let's tackle this matchup with some preliminary thoughts.

First of all, Oklahoma (even though a game against the Sooners would have taken place in Shreveport) was/is the only opponent that could have made UF's bowl game an even bigger deal. Michigan is a big-name school, but Lloyd Carr's conservative coaching and Mike Hart's rust would have taken some of the luster out of a win against the Maize and Blue. By going up against Kirk Ferentz and his staff, particularly defensive coordinator Norm Parker--whom Dan Mullen will need to draw even with for Florida to have a good shot at victory--Urban Meyer gets an A-list, five-star coaching test in his first bowl game as the Gator coach. Only Bob Stoops would have posed an even bigger coaching opponent.

Precisely because the coaching matchup is such a high-profile one, the stakes in a game named after a steakhouse franchise are higher than what they initially figured to be. Dispatching of Ferentz and avenging the 2004 Outback loss will give Meyer and Florida enormous momentum heading into 2006. But a loss? Well, you don't WANT to go there, but if you have to go there, all the obvious worries about Meyer--who took some body blows in his first full SEC season--will resurface and linger in the offseason. The coach Meyer is facing makes this game all the more important for him and his UF career. Yes, this bowl game isn't an all-important deathmatch, but it's more significant than if the Gators were playing Michigan or, even more so, a lower-tier Big XII school.

Now, to the more urgent question: what do the Gators need to do to win? A few really big keys come immediately to mind:

1) Win the first quarter decisively. Meyer has a lot of time to prepare for this game. The last two times Florida has had at least one off week--against Georgia and then Florida State--the Gators delivered the goods in the early going, especially in the Cocktail Party. With an authoritative start that was missing in the year's losses--at Alabama, LSU and South Carolina--Florida will immediately frame the game on its terms. Chris Leak will immediately feel less pressure; Florida's D-line will be able to pin its ears back; an Iowa team that wobbled at times in the 2005 regular season will see its confidence plummet; and the feel-good momentum from the rout of FS-Who will come flooding back. It's more important for Florida to get a huge early start than Iowa.

2) Get big hits on Drew Tate, early and often. Tate, much like Leak, has had an up-and-down season as the quarterback of a high-profile program. He is physically frail, as shown by a week two game against Iowa State when some hard hits by Cyclone defenders clearly affected his pocket presence and decision making. On a fumble in the second quarter of that game, a dazed and confused Tate stayed standing up while an Iowa State defender dove on the ground at Tate's feet and fell on the pigskin. Tate can and will be rattled with hellacious hitting, and since Florida's defensive front is the cornerstone of this team when it's playing well, the Gator pass rushers need to let Tate know they're going to get to him all day long. Setting an early tone will be huge for the Gators' defense on a day when the whole team needs to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11 a.m. Tampa time.

3) Contain Scott Chandler. This doesn't seem like a particularly obvious point, but it's worth mentioning because Iowa's tight end is a poor man's version of Leonard Pope. If Charlie Strong wants to focus on smothering Iowa's flankers, he needs to account for this oversized tight end. If Strong wants to rush the bejeezus out of Tate and knock him into 2007, he needs to account for Iowa's tight end. In red zone situations--particularly with respect to fades or sit-down routes--Florida's defense needs to keep an eye out for Scott Chandler. If this potential matchup problem is dealt with, Florida's defense will have a good day, and the success of the Gators' defense will dictate to the rest of this ballgame.

4) Physicality from the offensive front. One thing you can never cite in a bowl game is fatigue... at least if you want to consider yourself an upper-tier program. After struggling with zone blocking concepts in the first half of their season, the Gators' offensive linemen got tougher and stronger in the second half of the 2005 campaign. Against Iowa, the hard hats need to come out in full force, as the Gators will need to dominate Iowa's front four while also erasing stud linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway. With an authoritative effort from the big uglies, everything else should fall into place for the Gators' offense. Perhaps more instructively, a solid performance in the trenches will neutralize Parker's advantage over Mullen in the matchup between Iowa's defensive coordinator and Florida's growing but still inexperienced offensive coordinator. With physicality, the Gators will make their problems go away while maximizing their advantages. All in all, this is a game where Iowa is more likely to win with finesse plays, and Florida with old-school hitting. The more of a defensive slugfest, the better for Urban Meyer's team; the more of a shootout, the more Drew Tate seems inclined to win the day for the Hawkeyes.

So the Gators are back in the Outback. They better not back out of Tampa a loser. Not if they want to sustain the momentum that has coursed through Gainesville over the past week and a half.

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