By Pat Harty
Iowa City, Iowa – I thought about criticizing a fifth trip to the Outback Bowl in 13 years as being too much of the same thing for the Iowa football team, but what’s the point?
It’s a January bowl game in Florida for a team that just a month ago seemed close to unraveling.
You’d have to be a real party pooper to rain on this bowl parade.
"Certainly, I'd just start out by saying we're not only thrilled, but we're honored to be selected to the Outback Bowl," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentxz said in his opening statement to the media on Sunday. "I think I speak for everybody involved in our program, all of our players, all of our coaches, our staff members; it's just a real honor. And we're all looking forward to playing the University of Florida, what a traditional program and strong football team.
"So that's a great thing."
The Music City Bowl certainly had its appeal, including cost and convenience with its location in Nashville, Tenn.
San Diego is also a wonderful vacation destination and would’ve offered a tough matchup against a talented Pac-12 opponent in the Holiday Bowl.
The timing just wasn’t right for the Holiday Bowl, not with Iowa fans still feeling the effects from losing to Stanford 45-16 in the 2016 Rose Bowl less than a year ago. The date of the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 was another concern because of it being just two days after Christmas.
In fact, Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta said Sunday that the date of the Holiday Bowl was a bigger concern than any Rose Bowl hangover.
Whatever the case, back-to-back trips to southern California wasn’t realistic for most fans from a cost standpoint, nor would it have appealed to most of those who could afford it because it's too soon after the Rose Bowl and too soon after Christmas.
Iowa also has a history of playing horribly on the West Coast, especially in bowl games, whereas Florida is different.
Iowa has played in seven bowl games in Florida under Ferentz and has four victories, including the Outback Bowl twice in 2004 and 2006. The other victories came in the 2010 Orange Bowl in Miami and in the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Orlando on what is arguably the greatest play in the history of the Iowa program when quarterback Drew Tate connected with Warren Holloway for a 56-yard touchdown pass to defeat Louisiana State 30-25 as time expired.
So, yeah, Iowa versus Arkansas in the Music City Bowl with the always colorful Bret Bielema facing his alma mater would’ve been a hoot, but it wasn’t meant to be for either team.
The Outback Bowl comes first in the pecking order and has plenty to offer just from a tourist standpoint. Florida in the winter never gets old to a Midwesterner.
Iowa (8-4) played itself into the Outback Bowl by finishing the season with three consecutive victories, highlighted by the 14-13 upset over then No. 3 Michigan on Nov. 12 at Kinnick Stadium. But the clincher was the 40-10 beat-down against Nebraska in the season finale.
Iowa was more appealing to the Outback Bowl because of its lopsided victory over Nebraska. It didn't matter that Nebraska had a better overall record at 9-3. Iowa had momentum after dominating the head-to-head matchup, and momentum is huge for a bowl game because it helps sell tickets.
The Outback Bowl also matches a Big Ten team against an opponent from the SEC, which until this season, had long been considered the best conference in college football.
The Big Ten has seized that title this season with four teams ranked among the nation’s elite.
Iowa could do its part to help the Big Ten by defeating a Florida team that has struggled on offense throughout the season. Florida's roster is loaded with talented skill players, and yet, the offense has sputtered under head coach Jim McElwain.
Defense has been Florida's strength, although, it was hard to tell in the SEC title game on Saturday as top-ranked Alabama rolled to a 54-16 victory over the Gators.
Iowa senior tight end George Kittle was pleasantly surprised by the Outback Bowl invitation. He assumed that his Hawkeye career would end in either the Holiday Bowl or in the Music City Bowl based on what he was hearing.
The seniors are on a mission to end Iowa's bowl misery, which now stands at four consecutive losses, including three by double figures. Iowa's last bowl win came against Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl by a score of 27-24.
"As a team, we had a certain list of goals and the second or third one was we want to win a bowl game," Kittle said Sunday. "So we've changed up our schedule a little bit. This is more of a business trip than it is more of a vacation.
"So we're going to do whatever we can to focus on that and less on, hey, we're in Florida, we're going to have a good time. We're going down there to win."
Part of that shift in focus will have Iowa spending more time with bowl preparation in Iowa City as opposed to spending two weeks in Florida. It's now easier to prepare for a bowl game in Iowa City with all the updated facilities.
So why not take advantage of it?
The players will have nearly a month to heal, which will help with players like Kittle, who has been hampered by a foot injury.
Ferentz also said there is an outside chance that freshman cornerback Manny Rugamba could play in the Outback Bowl after injuring his shoulder against Nebraska. Rugamba became the starter before the Michigan game after senior Greg Mabin suffered a season-ending injury in practice.
Iowa will be alotted 8,500 tickets to the Outback Bowl. And it's reasonable to think those tickets will sell for several reasons, including the late-season surge and the attraction to Florida in the winter.
Iowa fans have a history of traveling well to Florida for bowl games.
Combine that with the momentum from finishing the season strong and this looks like another good fit for the Hawkeyes.
So what is there really to complain about?