The Outback Bowl pits Florida and Iowa against each other for the third time in the bowl's history. Additionally, it's Kirk Ferentz's fifth appearance in the game as a head coach, breaking the tie with the late Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and the former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez. So on Monday, Kirk Ferentz will make Outback Bowl history in Tampa, Florida.
The Gators enter the game pretty dinged up. They will be without all three starting linebackers, and likely be without a starter on the defensive line and possibly without two starters in the secondary. The Hawkeyes of course will be without Greg Mabin and Drake Kulick, but also true freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba. Offensive tackle Cole Croston will make his return and should be the starting right tackle for the contest.
For Florida, Iowa most resembles Arkansas, whom the Gators lost to this season by a score of 31-10. That could be a good sign for the Hawkeyes. Iowa will approach this game much the same way they did Michigan. They recognize there's like a talent and athleticism gap between the two sides so they'll attempt to be the more physical game and have the showdown decided in the trenches which is a style they're more comfortable with and more suited to play. As Cole Croston said in the lead up to the game, Iowa will get their butt kicked if they try to out-talent the Gators.
A lot of times in bowl games, the outcome is often decided before the game even kicks off. It's played over a month after the season commences which lends itself to complacency and disinterest. That is not happening on the Hawkeyes' side. This is a game that is very important to them. A bowl win was one of the primary goals headed into the season. Nobody on the team has won a bowl game and they've lost their last four, to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl, to LSU in the Outback Bowl, to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl and to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
For Florida, they're already bruised and battered and without a lot of their main contributors on the defensive side of the ball. They haven't had similar struggles in bowl games to place a high degree of emphasis on it, they were destroyed in the SEC Championship Game, ended the season on a sour note, and lack any tangible motivation entering the game other than pride. Will it be enough? We are about to find out.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1) WIN THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE - This is going to be one of the most physical games Iowa is going to play in this season. This Florida defense is good and they are physical. There is a reason that the Hawkeyes have been comparing the Gators to Michigan over the course of these past two days. The Gators have two talented corners that will make it really tough on Iowa's receivers to get open. Iowa needs to give C.J. Beathard time when they do pass and that starts up front with the offensive line.
2) RUN GAME EARLY AND OFTEN - I mentioned the talented Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. They will lock up with Iowa's receivers in man-to-man and are going to press at the line. This means Iowa is going to have to get that run game going early and they're going to have to go to it often. Thinking back to the Michigan game, it wasn't the pass that hurt the Wolverines, it was the run game. The same needs to happen on Monday afternoon for Iowa.
3) CONTROL THE BALL - They've said it all week. They need to yuck this game up. They admitted that Florida is more talented and they are definitely more athletic. Turning this game into a track meet won't bode well for Iowa. Control the ball, churn the clock, run it down their throats. That needs to be the recipe for Iowa on Monday. If they start getting fancy, only bad things will come from it. Creating a couple turnovers is going to help the Hawkeyes as well. That Michigan game was one of the ugliest games we saw all season as far as the entire game goes, so Iowa needs to make it look a lot like that one.
1) FAST START - The reason for a lot of the bowl struggles has been about the first quarter. Stanford whacked Iowa early. Tennessee jumped on them right out of the gate. Those are memories that stick with players. They all know how those games began and ended. If the Gators get off to a fast start, it could be the mindset of "here we go again" for Iowa. That can't happen. They have to be the aggressors and strike first with a couple chunk plays on offense or a defensive stop or turnover.
2) GROUND AND POUND - The game is pretty simple on the offensive end. Iowa struggles to pass. Florida has two of the best cornerbacks in all of college football so that's not going to change. They aren't going to become prolific through the air over night. I realize Florida will stack the box but any kind of passing game won't change that. The Hawkeyes have also shown the inability to use that to their advantage. Their only way of moving the ball will be on the ground whether that's against 8-man or 9-man boxes or not. They probably need to get close to 200 or surpass 200 yards on the ground to win. 150 yards on the ground might be the floor for a win but they'd probably want a little more for comfort. Anything less than 150 yards rushing is probably a loss because they don't have the passing game to overcome it. You are who you are.
3) SACK LUNCHES - Iowa needs to be aggressive with their front seven. They're very thin in the secondary, especially at cornerback. There's going to be some new faces back there that could be overwhelmed by Florida's speed and athleticism on the outside. I know the Gators are inept offensively, even more so than Iowa at instances, but they don't lack playmakers on the outside. They just can't consistently get the ball in their hands. How do the Hawkeyes help out the guys in the back end? Rush the quarterback. They need to move the pocket on Appleby, make him uncomfortable, and not allow him any chances to comb the field and take advantage of Iowa's youth on the boundaries.
HAWK TO ROCK
In this case, I'm going with Hawks to Rock. I like Iowa's offensive line to get the job done against a good Florida defense. The Hawkeyes are going to have everyone healthy and will have senior Cole Croston back. They did a really good job in the last few weeks of the regular season and were a big reason why Iowa finished so strongly. The only way they get this run game going is if this offensive line can give Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels room to operate. Although, if Wadley is on his game he doesn't need much space. But give me the offensive line to perform well on Monday.
The offensive line is the most important unit of the game so that's a fantastic answer. But I'll go with someone that will have the ball in his hands and making the plays. LeShun Daniels is in his final game as a Hawkeye and I think they give him every opportunity to be the bellcow in this one. Iowa will run the ball in this one and they will run it well. He should be the benefactor. But don't sleep on George Kittle. I know I said the passing game won't be a phase that is emphasized much, and it won't be, but he's healthy now and is a matchup nightmare for the Gators without their three starters at linebacker. It could be a line for him where he only has two catches but both are touchdowns.
Defensively, the one I think can pop with a fantastic game is Anthony Nelson. The pass rush will be important. I think Iowa will send some interesting blitzes throughout the game knowing that they need to help their secondary out. That could give Nelson some creases to operate with and he's a younger player that usually takes some big steps in his growth and development during weeks off. I think he's a budding star and Monday could be his coming out party.
BONUS: I think Desmond King makes a big play on special teams, possibly a return for touchdown. That's my bold prediction.
IOWA 17 FLORIDA 13
IOWA 28 FLORIDA 16