CHICAGO — As sleepy travelers stand at the Starbucks kiosk, waiting for a much-needed caffeine jolt, a man who answers to Steve needs no such jump-start.
It’s 5 a.m. on Saturday and Steve, who doesn’t give a last name, is decked in black and gold, bounding through O’Hare International Airport with a smile.
He’s as excited as a child on Christmas. His flight is a 90 minutes away from taking him to Florida.
“This is going to be great,” Steve says.
His optimism has nothing to do with escaping a Midwest winter for 80-degree weather down south. It’s all about Iowa football.
“We are going to beat Florida,” he adds.
Steve’s enthusiasm is surprising only because the Hawkeyes and bowl season aren’t friends. They last won a postseason contest in 2010. Four bowl trips ended in a loss, including one-sided affairs in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl and 2016 Rose Bowl.
But that doesn’t dampen Steve’s enthusiasm — and it shouldn’t. Nearly everything seems to be going Iowa’s way in the days leading up to the Outback Bowl on Monday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
The Gators are 3-point favorites, but before either team made it to Tampa the Gators announced they’d be without their starting QB Luke Del Rio due to a shoulder injury.
“He tried to play his way through it and realized he couldn’t,” Florida coach Jim McElwain told SEC Country in early December.
The stats of Del Rio and backup Austin Appleby are similar, but the results aren’t. Del Rio occasionally breathed life into a stagnant offense. It never happened with Appleby.
The ceiling for the offense appears to be lower without Del Rio. That is a major plus for an Iowa team that scored 21 points six times or less this season.
The good news continued 72 hours before kickoff. McElwain announced that arguably the heart of Florida’s defense, LB Jarrad Davis, isn’t expected to suit up for the bowl, either. If that wasn’t enough, fellow starting linebackers Alex Anzalone and David Reese also likely won’t play.
In fact, it’s almost easier to list the Florida defenders that will be putting their helmet on. Safety Marcus Maye is out. Safety Nick Washington is questionable. On the defensive line Jordan Sherit is out and Bryan Cox Jr., who caught the eye of Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz in film study, is doubtful.
Florida is one of the better defenses in the country, ranking third in the nation in passing yards allowed (156.3), 10th in points allowed (17.9), and 33rd in rushing yards allowed (142.3). The unit heading to the Outback Bowl won’t be the one that shutdown SEC offenses during the regular season, however.
“I don’t think anyone would want to trade spots with Florida when it comes to injuries,” says Steve, who appears to be in his 40s, while waiting for his plane.
The Hawkeyes certainly wouldn’t — especially now, when they appear to be getting healthy. All signs point to OT Cole Croston, who missed five of the last six contests, starting. That would allow Iowa to use its preferred offensive line for the bowl.
This game could very well come down to whether the Hawkeyes can run the football. The return of Croston should only help an offensive line that factored heavily into why Iowa averaged 230.0 rushing yards in the final three games. Florida is strong against the run, but the loss of Davis is likely to be felt when Iowa gives the ball to RBs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley.
All is not perfect for the Hawkeyes, though. CB Manny Rugamba won’t play due to a shoulder injury. There is no real depth at cornerback next to All-American Desmond King; sophomore Josh Jackson will be making his first start.
But it doesn’t appear that Florida will be in position to take advantage of Iowa’s misfortune. The Gators are 81st nationally in passing. Their offense works best when the running game gets going.
Steve knows it all and is willing to chat with anyone who shows an interest in his Hawkeyes. He says a lot, but he doesn’t say the one thing that’s becoming clear.
If the Hawkeyes are to snap their bowl streak, this is the time to do it. Everything but the outcome already seems to be breaking their way.