By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – A chance to finish the season with nine wins, to send the seniors off on a high note and to be ranked in the final top-25 polls is all part of the reward waiting for the Iowa football team should it win the Outback Bowl.
That’s a lot of motivation, but there is something else that should motivate the Iowa players in preparation for facing No. 18 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day in Tampa, Fla.
It seems that every Hawkeye fan I've asked to make a prediction for the game has picked against Iowa. They feel bad doing it, but apparently they can’t help themselves because they have so little confidence in Iowa winning.
Even life-long Hawkeye homer Tom Suter from KCJJ radio picked against Iowa on Wednesday’s Allhawkeyes radio show and podcast. Suter didn’t just pick Iowa to lose, he has 24-6 as the final score.
That is close to a drubbing, but his reasoning makes sense.
Suter has little faith that Iowa will be productive on the ground against Mississippi State’s quick and aggressive defense, and it’s no secret that Iowa struggles to beat just about anybody when it rushes for fewer than 100 yards in a game.
When the Iowa running game breaks down, then play action breaks down and junior quarterback Nate Stanley becomes a sitting duck in the pocket.
Then the Iowa defense eventually wears down from the offense having too many 3-and-outs and gives up two or three big plays.
It is one thing for the oddmakers to have Mississippi State favored to win as they do by at least four points, but for Iowa fans to feel the same way is different.
I'm sure there are some Iowa fans who are predicting a Hawkeye victory in the Outback Bowl. I just haven't crossed paths with any, and I live in Iowa City.
Iowa State, Northwestern and Wisconsin are probably the three best defenses that Iowa has faced this season, but Mississippi State is superior to all three, at least on paper.
The 8-4 Bulldogs have the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allowing just 12 points per game.
Mississippi State held seven opponents to their lowest point total of the season, including top-ranked Alabama. Six of those seven teams ultimately became bowl eligible. The only one that didn't is Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs also allowed just 12 touchdowns in 12 games, which was well ahead of the second-lowest total of 19, and they are the only defense in the country that didn’t allow a single play of 50-plus yards.
Combine all those statistics and you have a smothering defense that is relentless in its pursuit and battled-tested from playing in the Southeastern Conference.
Mississippi State’s offense, on the other hand, is far from being elite and that helps to explain the four losses.
But even with a so-so offense, Iowa fans, at least the ones I’ve spoken to, are picking the Bulldogs to win.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve gone door-to-door conducting a survey. But I have spoken to a number of fans since the Outback Bowl matchup was announced, and I can’t recall one of them picking Iowa to win.
They have little confidence that Iowa can compete with Mississippi State’s speed on defense, and the loss of big-play tight end Noah Fant to the 2019 NFL Draft has fueled that lack of confidence.
Iowa's lack of team speed often gets exposed in bowl games, especially when the opponent is from the SEC. And the fans I've spoken to expect the same thing to happen against Mississippi State.
Meanwhile, the Iowa players seem to relish the challenge, as you would hope and expect.
“Obviously, they’re extremely talented, a top-25 defense in the country and that’s what we want to play against,” Nate Stanley said.
I haven’t made my prediction yet, but I’m leaning towards picking Mississippi State in a low-scoring game in which neither team scores 20 points.
And the feedback from Iowa fans is helping to determine which way I lean.