Iowa vs. Florida in the Outback Bowl. Hmm ... where have we heard that one before?
Oh, that's right. In 2004. And again in 2006. The folks in Tampa sure like this matchup -- and the Hawkeyes in general. This is their fifth trip to the Outback in 12 years.
Kirk Ferentz's team seemed bound for a lesser bowl -- the Outback is the highest non-New Year's Six game in the Big Ten bowl lineup this season -- until a strong finish. The Hawkeyes stunned Michigan at home on Nov. 12 and then steamrolled Nebraska 40-10 in the season finale, leapfrogging the Cornhuskers on the bowl ladder in the process.
Defense keyed the Iowa resurgence, as Phil Parker's side of the ball allowed only 23 points in the final three games. Defense also happens to be the strong suit for Florida, as the Gators finished sixth in the FBS in yards allowed per game, ninth in yards per play surrendered.
It's the offensive end where both teams had their troubles. Florida was 110th nationally in scoring and 115th in total offense this season, while the Hawkeyes tied for 77th in points scored and were 120th in yards per game.
So don't expect a shootout in this one. Instead, we're likely to see two hard-nosed defenses control the action while each team tries to scrape together drives. And lots of punts. First one to 21 wins?
Most intriguing matchup: Iowa's running game vs. Florida's front seven. The Gators excel in pass coverage, led by cornerback Teez Tabor. The Hawkeyes have had a hard time creating explosive plays in the passing game with quarterback C.J. Beathard, ranking 13th in the Big Ten in passing yards per game. With that avenue likely closed off or at least severely obstructed, Iowa must turn to its bread-and-butter: the running game. It's got a pair of good backs in Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr., and the offensive line played very well down the stretch after a shaky start. If the Hawkeyes are going to move the ball at all, they will have to control the ground game.
Iowa player who could have a big game: All-American cornerback Desmond King will cap his outstanding career in the Outback Bowl, and given the Gators' weak passing attack, he could go out with a bang. Florida quarterback Austin Appleby threw three interceptions against Alabama in the SEC title game. OK, so Iowa's defense isn't Alabama -- no one's is -- but King faced Appleby three previous times when Appleby played at Purdue. King also was the Big Ten's best kick returner this season, so he could make an impact on special teams as well.
Keys to victory: Iowa has long been a program based in the trenches, and that's where it must win the most battles to have success, something that didn't happen in blowout losses in its previous two bowl appearances (Stanford in the Rose Bowl last season, Tennessee in the 2015 season's TaxSlayer Bowl). The Hawkeyes will likely face a speed disadvantage here, so they will need to be the more physical team. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and linebacker Josey Jewell have to lead the way for the defensive front seven, and the offensive line has to put it all together.