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IOWA CITY — The fact that the Big Ten was the big dog in college football this season helped kick Iowa upstairs into the Outback Bowl.
The clincher was the Hawkeyes' finish. Iowa started November with a 41-14 flop at Penn State, but then marched through then-No. 3 Michigan, Illinois and crushed then-No. 16 Nebraska.
The Big Ten put four teams in New Year's Six bowls and that shaped the Hawkeyes' bowl destination. Iowa's finish, however, stamped its ticket for its fifth trip to the Tampa, Fla., bowl under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa (8-4) drew interest from the Holiday (San Diego, Calif.) and Music City (Nashville, Tenn.), but the Outback (noon on Jan. 2 on ABC) had the pick and it wasn't going to pass on the Hawkeyes.
'The reason they were selected this year, and we know a lot of people wanted them, is the way they finished,' Outback Bowl president/CEO Jim McVay said Sunday night. 'They way those guys hung together. These guys went after Michigan, which is an excellent football team, beat Michigan and then played Nebraska and really took it to Nebraska.'
Going into the Black Friday game, the Huskers seemed like a likely Outback selection. Nebraska had never played in Tampa and had three trips to the Holiday since 2009. Even coming out, Nebraska is 9-3, so an argument could've been made for the Huskers in Tampa.
But 40-10 and 'really took it to Nebraska' set the wheels in motion. Nebraska will face Tennessee in the Music City.
'When you get a team that's hot like that and who can play with anyone in the country and we've had great experiences with these guys ...,' McVay said. 'Iowa's got everything you want out of a bowl team and that starts with winning those games at the end and making everything just feel right. That's why we took Iowa.'
The Hawkeyes will face a familiar Outback foe in the Florida Gators (8-4). Florida is the SEC East Division champion and fell to No. 1 Alabama, 54-16, in the SEC championship game last Saturday. The Gators are ranked No. 17 in the CFP Ranking and No. 20 in the Associated Press poll. The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 21 in the AP.
The Big Ten's latest bowl selection criteria didn't kick in until after the Hawkeyes' fourth appearance in the Outback (a 14-7 loss to LSU in 2014). The league now puts a focus on diversifying Big Ten representation in their various lower bowl games. The Citrus, Holiday, Outback and Foster Farms Bowls are all required to have at least five different teams during a six-year time period.
So, the likelihood of Florida bowl game for Iowa in the next couple of seasons goes down for 'at least a year or two,' Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said Sunday.
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'It's trying to create the best win-win for the bowls and the teams in the conference,' Barta said. '... Trying to rotate it so there isn't fan apathy, that was the goal, that was the principle and, so far, I think it's worked well.'
Iowa's ticket allotment for the bowl is 8,500. Barta didn't have an update on sales as of Sunday evening.
This will be the Hawkeyes' third Outback Bowl matchup against the Gators. Ferentz's 2003 team crushed Florida, 37-17. Against Urban Meyer-led Florida in 2006, Iowa fell 31-24 after a controversial onside kick call made by a Conference USA officiating crew.
Ferentz believes the Outback is getting an Iowa team that found an identity in November after bouncing back from one of the worst defeats in the Ferentz era.
'Sometimes I think maybe you've got to hit rock bottom to get there, but that's what we did,' said Ferentz, who has coached against Ron Zook, Meyer, Steve Spurrier and Les Miles in the Outback (2-2 against). 'I say this all the time, but I get to work with really high-character people, high-caliber people, and it starts with our players. To get off the mat like they did and come back and meet a challenge, a big challenge that next week (Michigan), I think that showed a lot about the kind of guys we had.'
The Hawkeyes felt they stated their case in the Big Ten bowl hierarchy walking off the field after their 40-10 victory over Nebraska.
'Offensively I felt like we did everything we pretty much wanted to do,' said running back LeShun Daniels, who rushed for 158 of Iowa's 264 rushing yards against the Huskers. 'I thought the way we prepared throughout the week and the mentality we had going into the game that we were going to come out with the victory.'
Iowa did lose a few players during the Nebraska game. First and foremost, you saw fullback Drake Kulick go off on a cart with a broken leg. Ferentz said he is out for the Outback. Freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba suffered a shoulder injury, but hasn't been ruled out.
'Manny (Rugamba) has got an outside shot, but I don't think we can count on him right now,' Ferentz said. 'Probably know more in a couple weeks, just depends on how things come together.'
Rugamba replaced senior and three-year starter Greg Mabin going into the Michigan game on Nov. 11. Mabin suffered a broken ankle and won't play in the bowl. Senior offensive tackle Cole Croston has a 'realistic' chance to play, Ferentz said.