IOWA CITY — Iowa has had the same head coach for 20 years and the same uniforms for almost 40 years.
It only feels like it’s had the same bowl game for 100 years.
Iowa (8-4) is going to the Outback Bowl. Again. It’s the Hawkeyes’ sixth trip to the Tampa, Fla., bowl and third in the last six years. This time, the opponent is No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4).
All of the Bulldogs’ losses came against top 15 teams. They have the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation despite playing in the SEC West. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is third in the SEC in rushing and 14th in passing, so definitely a dual-threat QB heading Iowa’s way.
The Big Ten throttling multiple appearances for the same school in the same place? That was OK until it came down to Northwestern or Iowa on Sunday. Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said Sunday night that the Hawkeyes had three enthusiastic bowl suitors — the Citrus, Outback and Holiday.
The Citrus had to see if Penn State didn’t get vacuumed up by the New Year’s Six bowls. It wasn’t, so the Citrus made that move. Then, it was the Outback. Northwestern beat Iowa, won the West and fell to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
The Outback still took Iowa.
“I think I would be concerned if we went back-to-back,” Barta said. “We kind of remedied that in the Big Ten. The reason it doesn’t concern me is we have a lot of Iowans in Florida. It’s easy to get there, a lot easier than some of the other locations.”
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How a team “travels” to bowl games still matters. That’s why Iowa hopped Northwestern and probably always will.
“It’s still real,” Barta said. “They still want their stadium full. They want TV ratings, so the ‘following’ still is very important. I get what you’re saying. We’ve changed our system, but they still want a successful bowl.”
This is where everyone should raise an eyebrow.
This is a different time and a different Iowa team, but the Hawkeyes' last three games against the SEC haven’t been trophies.
The 2014 Outback was a 21-14 loss to LSU. Iowa had 233 yards of offense. The 2015 TaxSlayer was a listless 45-28 loss to Tennessee. It was 35-7 at halftime. The 2017 Outback was a 30-3 blowout loss to Florida. Iowa had 226 yards of offense.
Matchups have been more of a factor in this round of Big Ten bowls. The league has focused some energy on making sure its teams are playing teams they should be playing.
You could argue Iowa and Mississippi State are different 8-4 teams, but this is going to play out one way or the other at 11 a.m. Iowa time on New Year’s Day.
“How we handle this month will be really important, but again you’re playing an outstanding SEC team, and we saw two really good SEC teams play yesterday on TV,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think it’s just representative of the kind of league and conference they have.”
The Hawkeyes want this. Of course, they want to measure themselves against the SEC.
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“Whenever you hear SEC, you think of powerhouse programs, fast guys and stuff,” safety Amani Hooker said. “You want to see if it lives up to the hype.”
Iowa already knows it will face the Bulldogs without all-Big Ten tight end Noah Fant. The 6-5, 241-pounder from Omaha, Neb., announced Friday that he will skip his senior year and the bowl game to enter the NFL draft.
Ferentz said he has talked with a “handful” of Iowa players on the possibility of leaving early for the NFL.
“The NFL put a really good, informational packet out this year,” Ferentz said. “I shared it with the players and their parents. It’s an educational process for all to go through and gather good information, reliable information from people that really know the draft and can project it and know the draft board this year.
“But again, it just gets down to a personal decision for the players involved. We’ll let the process play out and see where it all goes.”
Hooker, tight end T.J. Hockenson and quarterback Nate Stanley were among that handful. Defensive end Anthony Nelson has said he will wait and see what he hears from the NFL draft advisory board.
“There are a wide variety of offenses people play in college and who knows what will translate and what won’t,” Stanley said Sunday. “At the same time, it’s always nice to get feedback from the people who’ll be looking at you seriously in the upcoming future.”
After the Pinstripe Bowl last year, cornerback Josh Jackson and offensive lineman James Daniels announced they were leaving a year early for the NFL. Both were drafted in the second round.
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