By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Every so often, I slip into a trance and then stare into my crystal ball to see what might happen in the near future.
Here are 10 predictions mostly about the Iowa football team as it prepares to face No. 18 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day in Tampa. Fla.
1. Third-year sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson and third-year junior defensive back Amani Hooker will both declare for the 2019 NFL Draft shortly after the Outback Bowl. My sources tell me that each has received a high grade from the NFL, as did fourth-year junior defensive end Anthony Nelson, although, I’m not as confident about Nelson leaving early at this stage.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz squashed any NFL Draft talk while meeting with reporters on Thursday in Tampa.
He confirmed that the players who requested feedback from the NFL received their information last week, but that was all that Ferentz said about the topic.
“Like I said last week, we’re just thinking about the game right now, Mississippi State,” Ferentz said. “I don’t expect anybody to make an announcement either way during the next couple days. It’s about the game.”
Ferentz certainly has the right to silence the NFL Draft talk right now because the focus should be on the bowl game. But the possibility of Hockenson and Hooker, and maybe Nelson, all joining tight end Noah Fant as early applicants for the 2019 NFL Draft is a topic that Ferentz will eventually have to address.
2. Solon native and true freshman Tyler Linderbaum will replace departing senior Keegan Render as the starting center for next season. Linderbaum recently made the switch from defensive tackle to center and appears to have caught on quickly. He played both positions at a high level in high school.
“He has done a nice job,” Kirk Ferentz said Thursday. “He has transitioned pretty well. A lot of times it’s a real tough transition for a guy to go from defense to offense. He has a little feel and knack for it. He has to learn a lot of finer points now, but he is getting a lot of work and I think he is enjoying it.”
Linderbaum isn’t expected to play in the bowl game and will maintain his freshman status for next season by having appeared in just three games this season.
Cole Banwart will serve as the backup center in the bowl game, but my prediction is that he will start at guard next season and that Linderbaum will be the starting center. That would put Linderbaum on course to be a four-year starter.
3. Noah Fant will never be talked about in the glowing terms that he deserves due to how his junior season unfolded and to how his career ended at Iowa.
And that’s a shame because both sides made each other better, and because Fant deserves better.
It seems almost as if Fant never existed, considering he didn’t win a single award at the team banquet, and considering how much he stood on the sideline during the regular season for reasons that will never make any sense.
The third question asked to Kirk Ferentz on Thursday was about the difference in preparing for the Outback Bowl without Fant.
“It’s no different than if a player is injured,” Ferentz said. “You look at what you think you are going to have going into a game and you never know until you get to the game. Then try to balance things out. We’ll change our personnel groups a little bit, certainly. The percentages will change, but we will still have two tight ends on the field, that won’t come out of our playbook, but it might alter our percentages a little bit.
“We have other good players, too. The receivers are doing a good job, so if we’re out there in a three-wide receiver set, we feel good about those guys and just try to be smart about what we plan.
4. Iowa and Mississippi State both will score fewer than 20 points in the Outback Bowl and both will rush for fewer than 100 yards. This game has defensive struggle written all over it based on the statistics, including Mississippi State leading the nation in scoring defense at just 12 points per game. The Bulldogs have also allowed just 12 touchdowns in 12 games this season.
5. The Iowa coaching staff will remain intact for next season because the younger coaches are mostly new to the staff, while the older coaches have deep roots in Iowa, or with Kirk Ferentz or both.
Ferentz was asked on Thursday if he expected his staff to stay together.
“I haven’t heard anything to the contrary unless you guys know something I don’t know,” Ferentz said.
6. Receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette will lead Iowa in rushing in the Outback Bowl by gaining 30 yards on two end sweeps. It'll be tough for both teams to gain yards between the tackles because both defenses are rock solid against the run.
7. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley will be sacked three times in the Outback Bowl, while Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa will have two sacks by himself and recover a fumble. Epenesa's performance will help to fuel his starpower for the 2019 season, which as a bonus prediction will almost certainly be his last at Iowa.
8. There will be at least 15,000 Iowa fans who attend the Outback Bowl because the chance to watch Iowa play in a New Year’s Day bowl game in Florida never gets old. Especially with Iowa having played in the Pinstripe Bowl last season because that icy experience gave fans a greater appreciation for playing bowl games in warm weather and we’ll see that appreciation on New Year’s Day in Tampa.
9. The press box at Raymond James Stadium will be overtaken by the overpowering smell of blooming onions being served to the media prior to the 11 a.m. kickoff. I once got heart burn and felt bloated just from watching another reporter eat an entire blooming onion before the end of the first quarter of the 2006 Outback Bowl. The reporter was reminded after consuming the massive pile of batter, onions and grease that he had consumed enough calories to last for two days and it wasn't even noon yet. He didn't care.
10. Both teams in the Outback Bowl will perform the Wave at the end of the first quarter. That's a wish as much as a prediction.