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ORLANDO, Fla. — Looking solely on paper in early October, one might think an Iowa-Kentucky matchup wouldn’t be happening in the Citrus Bowl.
Both No. 15 Iowa and No. 22 Kentucky had 6-0 starts with a Top 10 ranking before both faced reality checks.
Iowa’s came in the form of back-to-back double-digit losses to unranked teams. Kentucky’s was a three-game losing skid that included a loss to then-No. 1 Georgia and two unranked foes.
Both teams’ marquee wins didn’t turn out to be as good as they appeared to be. Florida fell out of the rankings and lost by double-digits in the Gasparilla Bowl. Penn State, meanwhile, lost the following week to Illinois and ended the season outside of the Top 25.
Here’s what to watch when Iowa and Kentucky clash on Saturday:
Iowa offense vs. Kentucky defense
Iowa’s offense certainly hasn’t been perfect. But neither has Kentucky’s defense.
Pro Football Focus’ grade for the Hawkeyes’ offense is 67th among FBS programs. PFF ranks Kentucky’s defense 60th. ESPN’s Football Power Index places Iowa’s offense 98th and Kentucky’s defense 39th.
Kentucky has forced an SEC-worst six interceptions while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 66.8 percent of passes — that also ranks last in the conference.
The Wildcats have allowed 3.8 yards per carry, the eighth-best mark in the 14-team SEC, despite avoiding several of the conference’s upper-tier programs in their 2021 schedule.
Meanwhile, Iowa has been mum on who will start at quarterback, but all indicators point toward a Spencer Petras start.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said on Wednesday the decision was “pretty much” made without naming the starter.
That comment came fewer than 24 hours after Petras led the first team in the 11-on-11 drill that was open to media. Petras was the starter on the depth chart, too.
The Hawkeyes also are expected to use a trifecta of running backs — Ivory Kelly-Martin, Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams — after Tyler Goodson’s decision to opt out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Kelly-Martin is the starter listed on the depth chart, but Kirk Ferentz has repeatedly said all three will see significant action.
Iowa defense vs. Kentucky offense
Each team’s strengths will be on display during this part of the game.
ESPN’s FPI ranks Kentucky’s offense 21st and Iowa’s defense fifth. PFF ranks Kentucky’s offense fourth and Iowa’s defense 11th.
Kentucky, like in many past years, has an effective rushing attack. Running backs Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke each average more than 5 yards per carry.
Quarterback Will Levis, who is already familiar with the Hawkeyes from his time at Penn State, adds another dimension to the offense.
It’ll likely be the second-most balanced offensive attack Iowa has seen in 2021, trailing only the Michigan team that torched the Hawkeyes for 42 points.
Citrus Bowl prediction
Iowa’s defense and special teams can keep the Hawkeyes in the game, but the Goodson-less offense is going to need an improved showing from the Nebraska and Michigan games to beat a solid Kentucky team.
Kentucky 24, Iowa 21.
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