By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team will return to warm weather and to a familiar setting to play its bowl game against an unfamiliar opponent.
The 8-4 Hawkeyes will face 8-4 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla., in the first ever meeting between the two programs.
Iowa will be making its sixth appearance in the Outback Bowl since the 2005 season, and its third in the last six years, and has a 2-3 record in the bowl.
"Mostly, I'm just really happy for our seniors," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Sunday. "These guys have been a tremendous group. I' very appreciative of their contributions throughout the entire season, and obviously their entire careers and mostly for the leadership that they provide our team this year.
"We're really proud of our football team this year. They competed hard, prepared well for 12 weeks and we came up short in a couple games, but just really proud of their effort."
This will be Iowa’s 16th appearance in a bowl game in 20 seasons under Ferentz.
Iowa defeated Boston College 27-20 in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl, which was played in frigid and slippery conditions at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
The location of the Pinstripe Bowl almost certainly hurt Iowa’s turnout from a fan standpoint, so heading back to Florida should provide a boost in that regard.
"It should be nice from the skating rink we had last year to some good turf and good weather," said Iowa All-Big Ten defensvie back Amani Hooker. "So it should be awesome."
A victory in the Outback Bowl would almost certainly earn Iowa a spot in the final top-25 rankings. It would also mark just the seventh time under Ferentz that Iowa has won at least nine games in a season.
The biggest concern with the Outback Bowl is that some fans would be reluctant to embrace it since Iowa already has played in the bowl five times. Iowa's last appearance in the Outback Bowl came after the 2016 regular season, and resulted in a 30-3 loss to Florida.
However, Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta predictably downplayed that concern on Sunday.
"I think I would be concerned if we went back-to-back and we've kind of remedied that in the Big Ten," Barta said. "The reason it doesn't overly concern me is because we do have a lot of Iowans that live down in Florida. It's easy to get there from here, a lot easier than some of the locations. And it was 80 degress there today. So I think all of that combined with the fact they do a great job. The practice site is nearby. The fans that come in, if you stay down where the team is staying, there is a lot of activity and it's easy to walk to everything.
"So it's a convenient location as well as a warm one."
Tampa is intriguing from a tourist standpoint, but will that be enough to convince Iowa fans to travel in large numbers for the third time since 2014?
The Outback Bowl decision makers certainly think so or they wouldn't have pushed for Iowa.
The Holiday Bowl in San Diego and the Citrus Bowl in Florida were also strong possibilities, according to Barta. The Holiday Bowl was thought at one time to be Iowa's most likely destination. Iowa has played in the Holiday Bowl three times, but not since the 1991 season.
Iowa is coming off a regular season in which it won six of its first seven games and climbed to as high as 16th in the rankings.
But just when the Hawkeyes showed signs of being a Big Ten contender, they lost three games in a row to Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern by a combined 12 points.
Iowa rebounded to defeated Nebraska 31-28 in the regular-season finale and that victory helped to solidfy another trip to a warm-weather bowl game.
As for Mississippi State, former Penn State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead is in his first season as head coach for the Bulldogs, so he should be very familiar with Iowa's defense.
Mississippi State is led by one of the top defenses in college football and is holding opponents to about 13 points per game.
"I don't know anything about their personnel,"Ferentz said. "I have a feeling they are probably pretty good and pretty salty. But we've got a month to get ready. We're excited and we have a good football team, too. We're excited. Hopefully, it'll be a good game if we do our part."
Mississippi State has a 13-8 record in bowl games.