Bowl season is officially in full swing and we fans will finally have some compelling matchups to tide us over until 12:00 on the 2nd. You also have to love how the timing works out for this game—I for one could always use a one-day grace period post-NYE before jacking my blood pressure up for the last dose of Hawkeye football for nine months.
And it doesn’t seem likely that this year’s rendition of the Outback Bowl will take it easy on the ticker.
At first glance, the similarities between the Gators and Hawkeyes stand out: both teams have been plagued on offense in 2016, but managed to field top-10 defenses to match it. First team to 20 wins (hell it may be first to 10). With that said, let’s get more specific with some keys to the Outback Bowl.
Stay on schedule
First things first, this Florida defense is extremely talented; Kirk Ferentz drew the comparison with Michigan, and that’s probably an apt one. Similar to the game against the Wolverines, getting Akrum Wadley the ball on the edge seems to be Iowa’s biggest mismatch opportunity.
The Gators boast one of the nation’s best cornerback tandems in Teez Tabor (helluva name) and Quincy Wilson, which doesn’t bode well for Iowa’s struggling air attack. Those two, and this Florida defense as a whole, will eat up third down passing situations. The Hawkeyes might have to … *gulp*… get creative to stay on schedule offensively.
The good news there is that down the stretch Iowa seems to have found some sort of identity as ground-and-pound offense with some well-timed splashes of Wadley misdirection. That, plus some new wrinkles courtesy of bowl prep give the Hawks a chance on offense.
Force Appleby to make mistakes
Florida trots out a familiar face at quarterback in Purdue transfer Austin Appleby and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that Appleby never scared me much as a Boilermaker. Not much has changed on that front.
Appleby is still prone to turnovers and mental errors in general and hasn’t been able to take advantage of a fairly talented group of receivers. That group of receivers is concerning when you consider that Manny Rugamba is out and Iowa literally has three cornerbacks. Here’s your chance Josh Jackson.
Given that this is bound to be a low-scoring affair, turnovers will be critical. The Hawkeyes generally take care of the ball (3rd in the nation in giveaways), whereas the Gators have been decidedly more turnover-prone (T-76th). If Iowa is able to force Austin Appleby and company into mistakes, it might be the difference maker.
Win the field position battle
In that same “close, low scoring game” vein, special teams and field position will be pivotal. Florida ranks #10 nationally in net punting thanks to the booming leg of Johnny Townsend, who averages 48 yards per punt and has booted 28 punts of 50+ yards.
The Hawks have had a great year in the return game, ranking 12th and 9th in punt returns and kick returns, respectively. On the flip side, Florida checks in at 92nd and 86th in punt coverage and kick coverage, so Iowa should have some opportunities to start drives with a short field. Of course I don’t need to tell you that the Hawkeye offense will take every last yard they can get in this game.
Red zone: As you’d expect from two elite defenses, both Iowa (10) and Florida (13) rank highly in red zone defense. It’s interesting to note, though, that Iowa has been surprisingly efficient at converting in the red zone, ranking 9th nationally in conversion percentage. Florida, on the other hand, is 127th in red zone offense, ahead of only Rutgers. Iowa also scores touchdowns on 71% of its trips to the red zone, compared to 50% from Florida.
Momentum: There’s no doubt that the Hawks are flying high on the heels of three consecutive wins and two top-25 upsets. It’s a different story for Florida, which has lost its last two games (against Florida State and Alabama, mind you) by a combined 56 points.
So often it’s difficult (read: impossible) to predict what will happen in bowl games (the game that must not be named from last year comes to mind), but this feels like one where we have a pretty good idea. I’ll be fairly surprised if this isn’t a hard-fought defensive struggle that’s decided by a couple of pivotal plays (turnovers, explosive plays, etc.).
So, yeah, this is basically a tossup for me. Ultimately I keep coming back to the momentum that the Hawks are carrying into this game and the desire of everyone to get these seniors a bowl win. It probably won’t be pretty, but I see the Hawkeyes grinding out a close win and capping off an improbable run down the stretch of this season. Plus I’m still pissed about 2006.