We continue to whet your palate by looking at the bowl match ups involving Big Ten teams. There are some very juicy ones this year, and though it doesn’t qualify as a New Year’s Six tussle, the Outback Bowl has plenty of reasons to watch as well.
Iowa found itself towards the end of the regular season, and Florida used mostly defense to navigate the land-mines in the SEC, all the way to an East Division title. Things may have gone off the rails against ‘Bama in the SEC Championship Game, but there’s still bragging rights for both the Hawkeyes and Gators in Tampa.
Here are five reasons to eat a Bloomin’ Onion and turn on the Outback Bowl on January 2:
— Big Ten versus SEC bragging rights
Yep. It’s that time of year when we get those salty match ups between the Big Ten and big, bad SEC. And although the Big Ten has had a banner year during the regular season, the overrated narrative and chants of SEC! SEC! will rain down if those in the land of sweet tea and grits begin to pile up wins against the heartland.
Sure, this isn’t even one of the top four teams in the Big Ten against an SEC division champ, but that will matter little if the Gators are able to chomp down on the beaks of the Hawkeyes. And, heaven forbid, things are equal in some of the other Big Ten/SEC tilts, this one could swing the perception pendulum one way or the other.
— Can Florida find some offense?
The Gators have been great on the defensive side of the ball, but watching the side responsible for scoring points has been about as exciting as watching sand grow (what, you say sand doesn’t grow?). Point made.
Iowa’s defense seemed to find itself on a fateful night against Michigan, and a Gator offense that is No. 115 in the country should find things tough-sledding in Raymond James Stadium.
Both teams; strength appear to be on the defensive side, and if the Gators can find a way to move the chains consistently, it’ll give them a bit of an upper hand.
— Can Iowa continue its resurgence on offense?
Yeah, yeah, I just noted Iowa’s strength being defense, but the offense has also begun to find an identity as the sands fall in the hour glass. The Hawkeye offensive-line was just named the Joe Moore Award winner for the best O-line in the country, and it’s mostly because of its play late in the year.
That’s because suddenly, with a healthy and consistent starting unit now plugged in and ready to roll, the running lanes have opened, quarterback C.J. Beathard has had more time to throw, and the points are coming in more bunches than earlier in the year.
But … there is work to be done in this one against the country’s sixth ranked defense. It won’t be easy, but the momentum has to continue on offense to finish off the party in the Bay.
— Can C.J. Beathard get anything going through the air?
Not to beat a dead horse that’s already buried, but the Gator D is for real. It’s good against the run, but exceptionally stingy in giving up air-miles. Will there be a black-out over the New Year’s holiday?
If you rooting for Iowa, there has to at least be an effort to get something going down the field. It’s hard enough to impose willful intentions against an average team by being one-dimensional. To do it against a very, good defense is another story.
Iowa will no doubt try to establish the run, but it must sprinkle in the play-action pass and occasional efforts to stretch the field. Hitting on a few of them would also help.
— Who will cash in on the opportunities given?
In a game that figures to be a war of attrition, availability to cash-in points may be limited. That means when opportunity knocks, the door has to be kicked down. Touchdowns will be huge, but a field goal could decide this one.
Iowa has been great in the red zone this year, converting 92 percent of the time for eleventh in the country. Florida? Not so much. The Gators have been absolutely miserable once inside the 20-yard line. They only managed to walk away with points 70 percent of the time during the regular season.
Rutgers is the only team in the entire FBS that was worse in the red zone and we all know how the season in Piscataway turned out.
How each team fares deep in enemy territory could very well determine this one.
Way Too Early Look At The 2017 Iowa Hawkeyes
A very inconsistent 2016 is now ready to give way to the transition to 2017. There are some key pieces moving on. How will Iowa fill the void?
2016 didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations set atop the shoulders of an Iowa Hawkeye team that seemingly had everything going for it. Now, as we look ahead to 2017, Iowa will not only need to replace quarterback C.J. Beathard, it’ll have to find a way to beat back the sour taste of inconsistency that has plagued the program for so long.
Obviously things will have the same look and culture with Kirk Ferentz still stomping around Iowa City, but how will the Hawkeyes find a way to plug some notable holes and move forward in 2017?
How does all of it add up for the 2017 Iowa Hawkeyes’ football season?
Burning Question: Can Iowa find an adequate replacement for C. J. Beathard?
It’s not like Beathard had the biggest year in the history of quarterbacks wearing black and gold, but you kind of knew what you were getting, and it was mostly good.
He was never going to wow you with pinball type stat lines and air miles without blackouts, but he was the steady leader that kept plays alive and always seemed to make the play when it was needed — more or less.
Now Iowa has to find a way to replace the departed senior, and history would suggest that as the quarterback position goes, so too do the Hawkeyes’ chances of being more than just a tree falling in the forest with nobody around.
The early call here is for sophomore-to-be Nathan Stanley to be the guy, but it’ll likely be an open competition between him and junior Tyler Wiegers. Whomever wins out might need to be just a Toyota Camry rather than a Lamborghini, but he certainly can’t be a Ford Pinto with a broken tail-light.
Biggest Strength: Linebacker
The entire linebacking corps is back, and that includes the Big Ten’s 2016 leading tackler Josey Jewell, who is foregoing a declaration for the NFL to come back for his senior season. He should be a legitimate candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year.
The linebackers in a base 4-3 defense will always be a centerpiece of the scheme, and with Bo Bower and Ben Niemann there to round out a very experienced unit, there’s something to build around. With holes to plug at defensive tackle, you can bank on this unit getting a bushel of tackles.
This is an experienced and talented unit that will lead the way in setting the tone on defense in 2017. Frankly, it’ll need to.
Biggest Weakness: Receiver
If there’s been one area where Iowa has needed a boost over the last couple of years, it has been at the wide-receiver position. The running game and offensive line began to get their sea-legs at the tail-end of the year, but the passing game never really got on track to make the offense a tough one to prepare for.
It says a lot that Iowa’s leading receiver was walk-on Riley McCarron. It may say even more that his leading stat line consisted of just 41 catches for just 506 yards. There is a huge void there that needs to be filled if the Hawkeyes ever want to be mentioned in the same breath as the big boys of the conference.
You like the solid ability of Matt VandeBerg’s contributions coming back because of a medical red shirt, but there needs to be someone to stretch the field. The most likely candidate here is the promising, yet oft-injured Jay Scheel. He has all the ability, but has been inconsistent because of inexperience and a slew of injuries. He needs to get on the field and make a difference, especially with the team breaking the seal on a new signal-caller.
Truth be known, Iowa will need more options to step up as well in the passing game. The lack of game-breaking ability on the outside in today’s game of offensive firewords has kept the program from keeping pace with the other big name brands in the conference.
Players to Watch This Offseason:
Nathan Stanley, QB:
It goes without saying that the quarterback position will be talked about more than corn this upcoming fall in and around Iowa City. The gig is Stanley’s to lose, but he’ll need to show that he’s a leader. Most importantly, he’ll need to show the ability to make some plays down the field.
With Beathard being the unquestioned starter, there wasn’t a ton of work for Stanley in 2016, but he did appear in five games and was the clear No. 2 as a freshman over the more experienced Tyler Wieger and Drew Cook. He’ll clearly need more development after only going 5 of 9 passing in 2016. He totaled 62 yards.
The tools are there. Stanley is a big quarterback at 6-5, 230 lbs. who possesses a big arm. He’ll be the so-called “prototypical” pro-style QB if that still exists today. If all goes according to plan, he could be a main-stay under center for more than just a flash-in-the-pan year.
Akrum Wadley, RB:
Kirk Ferentz is going to the Akrum Wadley well early and often in 2017. LeShun Daniels is gone, so you can expect a big work load for Iowa’s most explosive and dependable offensive weapon.
He flirted with going to the church of the NFL on Sundays only to make Hawkeye fans sing Hallelujah! by announcing his decision to come back for his senior season. All Wadley did in 2016 was average an astounding 6.4 yards per carry. He finished over 1,000 yards and chipped in ten touchdowns.
Even more importantly, Wadley got better as the season wore on, going over 100 yards on the ground in five of the last eight games. He has great vision, can find the hole quickly, and is great in traffic and in the open field. If you watched the Michigan game, he was the best player on the field that night.
Matt VandeBerg, WR:
2016 was supposed to be VandeBerg’s last season, but that was before the injury bug hit the 6-1, 185 lb. receiver. The Hawkeyes petitioned for a medical red-shirt and they got it. As a result, VandeBerg is back as the steadying force in the passing game.
He doesn’t have the type of speed and game-breaking gamesmanship to take the top off the defense, but he’ll make a ton of catches to move the chains and get the tough yards over the middle to allow others to get open. He’ll be the security blanket for a green quarterback in the fall.
Iowa has consistently struggled with turning the page year over year. It has always seemed to be a team that builds on a season by starting out confidently and then coming together as the season wears on. It has also been a team that can let a challenging stretch bleed into subsequent weeks and result in unmet expectations.
It’ll be hard to figure out this team in the fall, but that seems to always be the case. On one hand, there’s enough key pieces there to think the team can keep the ship steady. On the other hand, the loss of Beathard and the lack of a pass-catching threat could be enough to hold this team back from doing much more than shooting for a bowl game.
What we do know is the culture. Ferentz will continue to preach the fundamentals. There will be the intent to play solid defense and special teams, and a utilization of a ball control offense with Akrum Wadley as the main option.
As usual, it’ll come down to execution. It’ll come down to breaks. And it’ll come down to how well the guy pulling the trigger under center can buckle his chin straps and be a difference maker.
Iowa Finishes Season Just As Inconsistent As It Started
Death, taxes and Iowa having several personalities in a season. Those are all certainties in life now aren’t they?
Perhaps no team can frustrate its fan base more by looking spectacular at times, and like a Pinto stuck in neutral at others. You can put the 2017 version of the Outback Bowl into that latter category.
Grind, grind goes the clutch.
It wasn’t long ago that we all believed Iowa to be the class of the Big Ten’ West division. It had a slew of the pieces back from a memorable 2015, and the schedule — though anything from a cake walk — was not a mine field like other Big Ten contenders.
But a funny thing happened while tip-toeing through the garden of mines. One week after looking fantastic against their arch-rival Iowa State Cyclones, the whole thing blew-up.
You know the story. Iowa lost to FCS opponent North Dakota State, and went on to lose four of seven in the Big Ten before hosting Michigan.
The offense couldn’t get out of its own way, and the defense stopped opponents the majority of the time, only to give up far too many big plays to doom chances in the winning column.
And then, unexplainably, something appeared to click against Michigan. We saw the defense find its 2015 self, while the offensive line began to get better in pass protection and begin opening holes for Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels.
Iowa upset No. 2 Michigan and it seemed to spring-board the Hawkeyes into a strong finishing kick with a three-game winning streak to end the season.
So it looked like the match up in the Outback Bowl would be a good one with a offensively challenged Gator team.
We’ve all been fooled again haven’t we?
Iowa is still Iowa. You kind of know what you are going to get. The Hawkeyes will give you a feeling of adulation by winning some games they have no business being in. They will make you want to kick the dog and retreat to bed with some of the clunkers.
In Tampa, it started out fine enough with the defense making stops, but it only went so far. The offense couldn’t get up its end of the bargain with a bushel of turnovers, and in the end, it was Florida that controlled the game by getting good field position via turnovers, and big plays to break the game open.
The result was an ugly 30-3 loss.
Ho-hum. Let the chants of SEC! SEC! begin in earnest.
Somewhere, somehow it’ll be time to tee-up what this season all means for Iowa’s chances next year. When it’s time to figure that all out, we’ll write plenty and give it a go. The reality though, is that your guess is as good as mine with this Iowa team.
The more things change, the more you wish they’d change — at least in Iowa City.
Phil Harrison is a frequent contributor to talking10.com. He is also a featured contributor to collegefootballews.com, the Student Section and occasionally campusinsiders.com. You can follow him on twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB or email him at email@example.com If that doesn’t work, you can find him in the doghouse at home.