TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa enters the Outback Bowl riding a four-bowl-game losing streak which dates back to 2011. The postseason wasn’t the Hawkeyes’ best friend in the Rose Bowl, TaxSlayer Bowl, Insight Bowl and, yes, the Outback Bowl in 2014.
And now comes No. 17 Florida, a formidable opponent and 3-point favorite for the 1 p.m. ET kickoff on Monday. Does this look like a matchup that favors the Hawkeyes? Will this be the year they win their first bowl game since 2010?
This matchup is going to feel a lot like a Big Ten West Division contest. Florida backup-turned-starter Austin Appleby is a Purdue transfer who faced Iowa and QB C.J. Beathard last season. He threw for 259 yards and 1 touchdown in a 40-20 loss.
Appleby is starting in place of an injured Luke Del Rio and Florida hasn’t looked to throw when Appleby has been in the game. He’s averaging 153.1 passing yard in 8 games, completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,225 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
For Iowa, the inability of receivers to get open throughout the season limited Beathard’s ability to impact games. He’s completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,874 yards, 17 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Neither team will ask its quarterback or the passing game to win the game, but if a signal caller puts up big numbers it could turn what’s expected to be a defensive showdown into a high scoring contest.
Both teams want to establish the run. Iowa brings in two potential playmaking backs in LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley. Daniels already topped the 1,000-yard mark while Wadley is 34 yards shy and is arguably the MVP of the offense because of plays like this:
The Florida rushing attack is yet to show any consistent big-play potential. Three different Hawkeyes have runs of at least 45 yards this season. Only one Gator has done it.
Florida will lean on Jordan Scarlett (795 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns). Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson will also likely work in at tailback.
Each squad wants its running backs to rack up yards. Establishing the running game is arguably Iowa’s biggest key to victory.
Wide receivers/tight ends
The receiving game isn’t the strength of either team. Riley McCarron leads the Hawkeyes with 41 receptions, 506 yards and 4 touchdowns. Florida is led by Antonio Callaway and his 47 receptions, 666 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Wadley became a larger part of the passing game as the season went on and TE George Kittle is expected to be at full health for the first time since October.
He could be a wild card in the contest. He did catch 2 touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Nebraska and was expected to be the second receiving option this season. That very well could be the case in against the Gators.
Wideout Brandon Powell and TE DeAndre Goolsby are the short-yardage, chain-moving specialists for the Gators. Tyrie Cleveland is a big-play threat and is someone the Hawkeyes will need to keep an eye on downfield. Both teams won’t ask the receivers to carry the offense, but the Gators will have more receiving options.
The offensive line turned into a strength late in the season as the Hawkeyes averaged 230.0 rushing yards in the final three games. The Hawkeyes will certainly look to follow their offensive line to victory if they open up holes like this:
Both offensive lines are susceptible to a strong pass rush. Florida allows 2.1 sacks per contest, Iowa 2.4.
Florida’s defense is full of potential NFL first-round draft picks, most notably DT Caleb Brantley. Brantley, who enters Monday with 28 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss, is the kind of player capable of neutralizing Iowa’s rushing attack. Florida rushing defense ranks 33rd nationally, allowing 142.3 rushing yards per game.
Florida rotates players in and out of the lineup, which keeps the pass rush fresh. The Gators finished with 30 sacks and six Gators recorded at least 2 sacks.
The Hawkeyes will bring its own future NFL draft pick in defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. The All-Big 12 honoree is the key to the run defense.
The last three opponents failed to rush for 100 yards on the Hawkeyes. They will rotate Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson at defensive end. Defensive line coach Reese Morgan believes Matt Nelson is coming off his best game.
Jarrad Davis isn’t just a potential first-round pick. The linebacker is at the center of the Florida defense — and he won’t play against Iowa.
Injuries hit the Gators hard at linebacker late in the season. Florida will also likely be without starters Alex Anzalone and David Reese.
Iowa counters with Butkus Award finalist Josey Jewell at middle linebacker. He is flanked by outside linebackers Ben Niemann and Bo Bower. The duo was exposed in space and on the edge during the season, but played better down the stretch.
This is the strength of the Florida defense. Cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson could both be selected in the first round. Safety Marcell Harris leads the team with 64 tackles. Passing yards will likely be hard to come by for the Hawkeyes. The Gators are third nationally in pass defense, allowing only 156.3 yards per game.
Iowa will bring its own shutdown corner in Desmond King, but Iowa will be without its next two top cornerbacks. Greg Mabin is out for the season with leg fracture. Manny Rugamba will miss the game because of a shoulder injury.
Josh Jackson is expected to make his first career start. Expect Florida to test Jackson early.
Both teams are strong in special teams. Iowa is the better return team with King handling punt and kick return duties. Florida ranks better at punt and kickoff.
Iowa K Keith Duncan did hit a game-winning field goal against Michigan, but Florida’s Eddy Pineiro is more consistent from long range. He’s hit 18 of 22 field goals, including 9 of 11 from at least 40 yards out. Pineiro reportedly dealt with a health scare during the holiday break, but will play in the game.
A bowl game can provide different challenges than a regular-season game, particularly given the bowl game typically comes a month after the regular season ends. Florida coach Jim McElwain is 1-1 in bowl games, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is 6-7 in bowl games with four straight losses. Ferentz holds the experience edge and the Hawkeyes did change things up with bowl prep this season. Time will tell if it worked.
Both teams bring in strong defenses. It’s not expected to be a high scoring bowl game.
The good news for Iowa is a Florida defense allowing only 17.9 points proved vulnerable in the run game down the stretch.
Bobby La Gesse prediction: Iowa 20, Florida 14
Scott Dochterman prediction: Iowa 19, Florida 16