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H.A.W.K.E.Y.E.S. Predicts: The Outback Bowl

Another trip to Florida for the Hawkeyes means a special edition of this series!

Hawk for Nerds
But we need to talk about the elephant in the room.

I’m excited. It’s a new year and Iowa has a chance to start 2017 off with a win over Florida in the Outback Bowl. When I left Iowa in 2011, the Hawks had just finished an impressive run of post season wins after beating Missouri. And then Oklahoma happened. And then there was 2012 the season that never happened. And then Iowa lost to LSU, Tennessee, and Stanford in consecutive bowl games, marking the nadir of Iowa’s bowl career under Ferentz. in the last five seasons, Iowa has either not made a bowl game or lost. Often embarrassingly so. But I want to step back from these specific games and look at this from a statistical perspective.

As an experiment, grab a coin, a piece of paper and a pen. Flip the coin 100 times and after each flip, mark down whether it was heads or tails. Then, after you’ve done that, flip the paper over and pretend you’re flipping the coin. Write down head or tails randomly 100 times. Once you’ve finished, count the number of times that either heads or tails came up five times in a row on each side of the paper. My guess is that for your list of actual coin flips, you have at least one run of 5 or more heads or tails in a row, but none in your “fake” flips. This exercise shows us two things. Firstly, if Iowa had a 50% chance of winning each individual game, it is not anomalous if they lost 5 in a row or won 5 in a row. The second point here is that we as humans like to find patterns when there are none. We might think streaks and slumps are a special thing, showing a trend. Most of the time it’s not a trend at all, just a function of random chance.

The reason I bring all of that up is that a streak of 4 bowl game losses in a row is not necessarily a sign that anything is going wrong. Bowl game match-ups are meant to be competitive in order to keep viewers watching. While a blowout can be fun for some to watch, advertisers hate it because half of the viewership will probably turn it off at half time. Iowa’s last 4 bowl games were against strong opponents, meaning that it was probably a toss-up whether the Hawks would win or not. Now, before we get too optimistic, each bowl game is an independent event. Iowa’s performance against Stanford has no bearing on how Iowa will play against Florida. There’s no special Coin Flip God that sees 4 losses in a row and says it’s time for Iowa to win. All that I’m saying is that 4 losses in a row is not an actual signal that something is wrong with Iowa’s bowl preparation or Ferentz’s bowl coaching.

So why do I bring this up? What does it have to do with Florida? Well, everything and nothing. At this point, the fact that Iowa has lost its last 4 straight bowl games is unfortunate, but, statistically speaking, not a significant indicator of anything systemic. One or two more, and we begin to creep into that space. On the other hand, because past bowl games don’t factor into future games, the Outback Bowl represents just another flip of the coin.

So what does H.A.W.K.E.Y.E.S. think about the bowl game?

Iowa heads to Florida coming off of a three-game resurgence in which the defense played lights out and the offense looked less anemic. The running game took shape, as Iowa was able to rack up almost 700 yards on the ground against Michigan, Illinois, and Nebraska. However, that same period saw Iowa throw for fewer than 300 yards. Fortunately, Florida is not much better when they have the ball, averaging 130 yards on the ground (less than everybody Iowa has played except Purdue) and 215 through the air (only 6 of Iowa’s 12 opponents averaged more) and have scored more than 30 in only three games (against Kentucky, North Texas and Missouri). And even more telling is that Florida has turned the ball over more than twice as often as Iowa this season and have had a very difficult time maintaining possession and sustaining drives.

However, Florida has played some decent defense this season, holding teams to almost 70 yards under their average through the air and 45 yards under their rushing average. This, in turn, means they have been able to hold offenses to significantly fewer plays and first downs, limiting their opportunities to score. Now, a caveat to consider: against quality opponents (teams that aren’t Kentucky, UMass, North Texas and Vanderbilt), Florida has not fared nearly so well, allowing FSU, Arkansas and Missouri to run the ball nearly at will. And in their season finale against Alabama, they were able to contain Alabama’s passing attack while simultaneously allowing 54 points. I get the feeling that Florida’s defense is good, but not great. Unfortunately, the computer does not care about Florida’s schedule too much.

Iowa Florida
Passing Yards 92.6 215.3
Rushing Yards 127.2 129.8
Turnovers 0.8 1.7
Penalties 3.9 6.7
Offensive Plays 55.4 67.1
First Downs 12.1 18.7
Score 15 20
Confidence 80%

If the model is to be believed, the Outback Bowl is going to be an ugly, low-scoring, defensive slog with Iowa falling 20-15. But I think that the game is going to hinge on turnovers. If Iowa can force two turnovers and turn those into points, the game is going to look much different. Also, if Desmond King can work some field position magic on returns, a short field changes the landscape of this match. Florida is prone to giving up the ball, averaging almost 2 turnovers per game and they do not have a dynamic playmaker in the return game like the Hawks have with King. However, Florida’s punter is averaging nearly 50 yards per boot, so this will be a match-up to pay attention to. I think the computer has this one wrong. My personal opinion is that Iowa is able to pull this one off late in the game off of a good return by either King or McCarron, setting up a short field that Iowa can capitalize on with a late field goal, putting Iowa ahead 24-21. Let me know what you think. What are your score predictions fro the Outback Bowl?