TAMPA, Fla. — Nine days ago, the wind chill in hovering around the Iowa football complex was minus-32.
Tuesday morning, about 16 hours after the Hawkeyes arrived at their Tampa team hotel, the humidity was near 70 percent and the temperature felt like 83 degrees. The juxtaposition of bitter cold and sweaty humidity encapsulated in a 115-degree swing could have negative ramifications for the players. In other words, stay hydrated.
Let’s take a look at five keys for Iowa entering its Jan. 2 Outback Bowl matchup with Florida (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
5. Adjust to the weather
The standard dumb question from scribes like myself pertaining to bowl preference in late November always leads to the non-funny response by northern administrators of “somewhere warm.” For Iowa fans, players and staff families, coming to Tampa in late December is a vacation. There are plenty of sites and sights. There are beaches and palm trees. It’s warm and sunny. That’s why Big Ten teams head south for the winter.
But for Iowa’s opponent, Florida, there’s no excitement about the weather. They live in it year-round. The Gators bused from Gainesville to Tampa for practice Tuesday morning before checking into their hotel. It’s just another game in their homeland. Iowans return to snow and ice. Floridians return to, well, this. Acclimation is crucial for the Hawkeyes.
4. Block Caleb Brantley
Florida defensive tackle Caleb Brantley is active, physical and destructive. He’s an interior threat to split a double team and turn a positive gain into a 2-yard loss. At 6-foot-2, 297 pounds, Brantley has enough size and build to take on multiple blockers and stand his ground. For a comparison, think underrated Purdue defensive tackle Jake Replogle (who missed this year’s game with Iowa because of an injury).
Brantley’s total tackles appear pedestrian (28), but he tied for Florida’s lead with 8.5 tackles for loss. Statistics belie Brantley’s importance, and he’s a game changer if he’s not blocked properly.
3. Pressure Austin Appleby
According to Pro Football Focus, Florida senior quarterback Austin Appleby played solidly in the SEC Championship game against Alabama when he faced no pressure. Appleby completed 22 of 29 passes for 217 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions without duress. But when the Crimson Tide got after Appleby, he completed just 4 of 10 passes for 44 yards and an interception. He also was sacked four times.
Nobody will confuse Iowa’s gritty defense with the Alabama machine, especially with its pass rush. Iowa ranked 66th nationally in sacks (25) and 113th in tackles for loss (113). But the Hawkeyes must find a way to pressure Appleby, who they faced three times when he quarterbacked Purdue. If they can, they’ll be in the game.
2. Be quick but don’t hurry on special teams
In a defensive fistfight, which this game shapes up to be, a special teams blunder could determine the game’s outcome. The last time Iowa competed in the Outback Bowl, a 21-14 loss to LSU, returner Kevonte Martin-Manley fumbled a punt at the Hawkeyes’ 39-yard line. That led to an LSU touchdown and a 14-0 Iowa deficit in the second quarter.
Florida boasts one of the nation’s best punters in Johnny Townsend, who ranked first in the SEC at 48.0 yards per punt. Townsend booted 28 punts for 50 yards or more and dropped 25 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Iowa possesses one of the nation’s best returners in Desmond King, who was named second-team All-American kick returner with the Football Writers Association of America. For players with more than six returns, King led the Big Ten in yards per kick return at 27.2. He returned 25 punts, also tops in the Big Ten. Oddly enough, King never has scored on special teams.
This is one of those classic areas where a team might not win the game on special teams, but it might lose it.
1. Do something in the passing game
Iowa faces no more difficult task than to move the ball on Florida’s defense through the air. The Gators gave up the fewest passing touchdowns in the country (eight) and ranked second nationally in completion percentage (46.4). Offenses averaged 156.3 yards per game through the air on Florida, third best among FBS schools. Cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are likely first-round draft picks. The only combination Iowa has seen close to Tabor-Wilson was against Michigan, and the Florida combo is better.
Combine Iowa’s subpar passing numbers — 161.3 yards per game (114th), 6.8 yards per attempt (88th) — plus its inability to convert on third down (114th nationally), and this sets up as a net negative for Iowa in every way. But there’s also an opportunity. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is a veteran and has thrown 34 touchdowns in the last two seasons. The Hawkeyes devised quick screens and dumps to Akrum Wadley out of the backfield, which helped upset Michigan. Iowa might struggle in traditional means, but passing plays could come in unlikely fashion.
Moving the ball is a premium on Florida’s defense. Any completed pass for a first down will help further Iowa’s cause.