Two of the nation’s top defenses will be on display in the Outback Bowl. Find out whether Florida or Iowa has the edge.
The bowl season is almost at its end, but that’s usually where some of the best game lie. One game that has been overshadowed by the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowls is the Outback Bowl. The bowl features a solid SEC-Big Ten matchup between defensive stalwarts in Florida and Iowa, and will be played on Jan. 2, at 1 p.m. EST, with live coverage from ABC.
Storylines Heading Into The Game
So Close, Yet So Far Away
For the second straight season, the Florida Gators are SEC East champions. Head coach Jim McElwain became the first coach in SEC history to win his division in each of his first two seasons. And while that in itself is a great accomplishment, the Gators have yet to show up in big games. The Gators have lost ugly to both Alabama and Florida State (lost by a combined margin of 95 points) in the last two seasons, while also getting pounded by Michigan in last year’s Citrus Bowl. One can only wonder how long McElwain will last if he can’t get over the hump in big games.
Best Of Three
This is the third time the Gators and the Hawkeyes have faced off in the Outback Bowl, with the teams splitting the first two games. Iowa defeated Florida in decisive fashion in the first meeting, 37-17, but the Gators were able to escape with a 31-24 victory in the second matchup, thanks to a controversial call on an onside kick. This edition of the game promises to be just as good as the last, with two of the top defenses in the country on hand. Both teams will be looking to improve their showing in recent bowls, as Iowa has lost their last four and Florida has lost two of their last three bowl games.
Both of these teams come in sporting two of the country’s top defenses, and it’s no doubt that this game will hinge on the effort from that side of the ball. Iowa and Florida are currently tied for ninth in scoring defense, allowing just 17.9 points per game. In addition to that, both teams rank in the top 15 for opponent redzone conversion rate. If you’re looking for an offensive shootout, you’re not going to get it here. This game’s strictly going to be won by defense and special teams.
58.2 - In a game where defense and special teams are the key to victory, taking advantage of the opponent’s mistakes is a must. One of the areas that can cost a team is penalty yardage, and the Gators are one of the worst penalized teams in the nation. Florida ranks 87th in the nation, giving up 58.2 yards per game as a result of penalties. On top of that, the Gators are also 87th in the nation in the amount of penalties called against them per game (6.2). This is a game where five yards could be the difference between a one-point loss or a game-winning field goal. Florida’s defense does a great job of limiting offensive production but must be weary of giving up free yards.
73.53% - A point alluded to earlier, redzone defense is a strength of both teams playing in this game. However, the scale tips in favor of Iowa just a bit, as the Hawkeyes rank 10th in the nation with a 73.53% opponent conversion rate. This bodes well for the team since Florida is putrid inside the twenty. The Gators are next to last in the FBS when it comes to converting red zone opportunities into points. Florida has only scored one red zone touchdown in the last three games, and in a game where points are a premium, Iowa is going to make it difficult for them to put anything up on the board.
48.05 - Special teams play is going to make a huge impact in this game due to the lack of offense that each team provides. As such, the ability to flip the field with the punt team is one advantage that Florida has in its utility belt. Florida’s punter, Johnny Townsend, was somehow not even a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, despite leading the nation with an average of 48.05 yards per punt. It may sound like a joke, but Townsend really should be considered a key weapon for Florida. His ability to pin defenses in their own territory has no doubt made a great defense even better.
Austin Appleby, QB, Florida - For Florida to have success Appleby has to be efficient in the pass game. With the type of defense that Florida has, it really doesn’t take an elite quarterback to win games for the Gators. The graduate transfer from Purdue has shown that he can be a good passer at times, but his performance has been very hit-and-miss. Appleby has dealt with turnover issues for much of his career, and this season is no different.
Florida is on the board first with this Austin Appleby to Antonio Callaway touchdown. Join the discussion in the Alley. pic.twitter.com/OR0AoyBxpC— Mark Wheeler (@InsideTheGators) December 3, 2016
In his six starts this season he’s thrown five interceptions, with three coming in the SEC Championship against Alabama. Iowa is nowhere near the type of defense that Alabama is, but cornerback Desmond King won’t make things any easier. But what should be taken away as a positive from Appleby’s performance against Alabama is that he had the best completion percentage (66.7) among the Tide’s FBS opponents. Prior to his 261-yard performance, the Alabama defense had a six-game streak of allowing less than 200 yards passing.
The Gators had a good gameplan against Alabama — Appleby just made poor decisions at times. Knowing when to throw the ball away or when to make plays with his legs is the key to him avoiding the turnover bug. If Appleby can do that, he has the talent to put Florida in a position to win.
LeShun Daniels Jr. & Akrum Wadley, RBs, Iowa - If there’s one area on offense in which Iowa is superior to Florida, it’s the run game. Both LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley have combined for 1,979 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Wadley has dangerous speed, but is also a very efficient runner, averaging 6.62 yards per carry with just 12.7 carries per game. For comparison, there were only seven other running backs in the FBS that were able to average more carries with more yards per attempt.
Betting on the two-headed rushing attack is the best option for the Iowa offense. The Gators are facing depth issues in their front seven, so facing that head on is a better option than trying to attack a secondary that gives up just 156 yards per game through the air. The Florida defense has been susceptible to the run recently, giving up over 200 yards in four of their last five games.
Why Florida Wins
Florida will win this game if it gets solid production out of the passing game from Appleby. Appleby made some quality throws to receiver Antonio Callaway and tight end DeAndre Goolsby in the game against Alabama, but also made some errant ones while he was under pressure. The senior made a lot of positive strides in the game despite the picks he threw. Expect McElwain to come up with another gameplan that helps get the ball into his playmakers’ hands.
Be that as it may, Appleby is also going to need some help from Jordan Scarlett in the backfield. Scarlett has come on to be the Gators go-to back, doing a pretty good job in the process. The sophomore failed to get going against both Florida State and Alabama, but prior to that, he rushed for over 100 yards in consecutive games against South Carolina and LSU. Iowa has had issues stopping the run, so Scarlett is going to be leaned on heavily in order to take pressure off of Appleby.
Defensively, the front seven needs to make it a point to pressure Iowa QB C.J. Beathard and turn the Iowa offense into a one-dimensional attack. Although Iowa has a strong rushing attack, it makes it a lot easier to defend if you can eliminate one aspect of the offense. A strong push from the front seven could prove to knock Beathard off his game, as that’s happened against good defenses such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In those games, Beathard completed 50.6% of his passes for a combined 361 yards, tossing one touchdown and three interceptions.
Why Iowa Wins
Much like the plan is for Florida, Iowa’s offense needs to take the pressure off its quarterback by giving the ball to its two-headed monster in the backfield. Wadley and Daniels are two different kinds of backs, but compliment each other well in what they bring to the offense. Daniels is a back you can put in there on every down, while Wadley is the home run threat that can break free and slice up the defense. If the duo can move the chains consistently, it’ll keep Iowa from relying too heavily on Beathard. If not, Florida’s defense will make the Hawkeyes pay.
Another key to victory for Iowa is avoiding mistakes and taking advantage of scoring opportunities. The Hawkeyes may have had an anemic offense at times, but one thing they failed to do was hurt themselves. Iowa finished the season with only nine turnovers, pitting them second in the nation behind Western Michigan. An offense like this can’t afford turnovers and needs to take advantage of any chance it gets in the redzone. Iowa has done just that with its low turnover rate and its 92.31% red zone conversion rate.
As much as everyone enjoys the shootouts that some of these bowl games bring with them, this game will be lucky to see a team score more than 25 points. Both teams have a defensive calling card, along with quarterbacks who have at times shown they can be both good and bad. The game is going to come down to who can win the special teams battle along with which defense can force enough mistakes.
Right now that edge sits with the Gators. Florida is going to be tested first and foremost on the ground, but having middle linebacker Alex Anzalone back along with Jarrad Davis will help control the likes of Wadley and Daniels. Scarlett will get his carries on offense, picking up a decent amount of yards, while Appleby will capitalize off the positives he gained from the SEC Championship. But when the offense sputters, Townsend will pin the Hawkeyes deep in their own territory, making it difficult to get to the redzone.
Overall, this game is going to be close, and it should be a showcase for the punters. Whichever defense bends furthest back will take the loss.
Florida wins 20 - 17
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