There's a reason why Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 in the preseason and for much of September. It's the same reason why Iowa is arguably the biggest underdog of the postseason heading into Friday's Insight Bowl.
That reason is because the Sooners have a wealth of talent, especially on the offensive side where they averaged more than 40 points per game this season. That presents a stiff challenge to a Hawkeyes defense that struggled to find its footing most of the year.
"We know what we're capable of if we play our best," Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen said. "At the same time, we know we have to play our best if we want to compete with these guys."
It may seem like a pretty big mismatch on paper, but motivation always plays a key role in bowl games. And despite some adversity around the team, the Hawkeyes' defense has a strong rallying cry: Win one for Norm.
Defensive coordinator Norm Parker is retiring after 13 years in that role at the school. He's beloved by former and current players alike, and Iowa doesn't want to send him out with a loss.
"To be able to say you're a part of his last group, the group he felt comfortable retiring with, it's a big honor," senior defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "That means something to us. It really does. It would be ideal to let him go out with a nice win."
"That should give us a little boost, knowing it's his last time up in the box calling the shots," Nielsen said. "We didn't do so hot against Nebraska (in the regular-season finale), so we want to turn things around and have a good performance for him."
Of course, motivation only goes so far. The Hawkeyes still will have to execute on defense at a higher clip than they did this season, when they finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in most categories and last in pass defense. That last stat has to sound pretty good to Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. Iowa seemed to play better defensively down the stretch, in part due to the emergence of Daniels and a better pass rush. But Nielsen said film reviews showed that the defense still had too many breakdowns in each game.
There's another reason, though, to believe that Iowa can exceed expectations in Arizona. Fact is, this program has been tough to beat in bowls. The Hawkeyes have won three straight bowls, including last year's upset win over Missouri in the same Insight Bowl. They've won five of their past seven under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
What's the reason for that success? Daniels calls Ferentz "a genius when it comes to bowl prep" and says his coach's attitude filters down to the players. Nielsen said the tone of the winning streak was set by the senior class before the 2009 Outback Bowl win over South Carolina.
"I don't really think it's a secret," Nielsen said. "It all depends on the senior leadership. It's how you prepare -- you've got to take everything seriously and you can't act like it's just a vacation. You're there for a job.
"Different teams approach it differently. But it's just something our seniors and our leadership in general does. You've got to know when it's time to enjoy Arizona, and when it's time to hunker down and watch film and focus on football."
Ferentz said he and his staff reassessed how they structured bowl preparation after losing by three touchdowns to USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl. Because the school's finals often go late into December, planning around that can be tricky, he said.
"We’re in a fairly decent routine that we’re comfortable with," he said.
Norm Parker has been part of Iowa's routine for as long as Ferentz has been head coach. The team would like nothing more than to give him a retirement gift.
"Everybody on the team is certainly committed to that point," Ferentz said.
“In college football, you really develop close relationships with players and coaches. ... Those relationships get built and continue throughout time, and Norm’s a guy who’s certainly reached a lot of our players, both present and past. Everybody would love to send him out on a good note.”