Tampa, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The Big Ten and the SEC square off in the 28th annual Outback Bowl on Wednesday afternoon, as the Iowa Hawkeyes take on the 14th-ranked LSU Tigers at Raymond James Stadium.
After missing out on bowl season last year with a disappointing 4-8 ledger, the Hawkeyes are back in the postseason for the 11th time in the past 13 years after finishing up 8-4, including 5-3 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are rolling into this contest hot with three straight wins, including a road victory in the regular-season finale at Nebraska, 38-17.
"We know we have an incredible challenge ahead," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "When we played (LSU) in 2004, they were extremely talented and very well coached, and they aren't a lot different this year. They have continued to recruit well and they win a lot of games. It will be a great challenge for our team."
Treading through the tough SEC, LSU put together an impressive 9-3 campaign, its fifth straight season with at least nine wins and its 14th straight bowl bid. Although the Tigers closed out the regular season with back-to-back wins over Texas A&M (34-10) and Arkansas (31-27), they have not fared as well outside of Baton Rouge, going just 2-3 combined in road and neutral-field matchups.
"We are focused and we are here to play a game," Miles said. "This is not just a vacation in Tampa for us. This team is motivated by the chance at winning a 10th game and to come away with a bowl championship."
The only previous meeting between the teams came in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005, when Iowa came away with a 30-25 victory.
Iowa has found plenty of success this season in spite of owning the Big Ten's ninth-best scoring offense (27.3 ppg), although that number has shot up to 33.3 points per game on its current three-game winning streak.
The Hawkeyes are a run-first team, with more than 61 percent of their plays coming on the ground, although despite their persistence, they average just a modest 4.4 yards per carry. Mark Weisman is the workhorse, posting 937 yards and seven touchdowns, while ranking sixth in the Big Ten in carries (208). Damon Bullock (467 yards, TD) and Jordan Canzeri (447 yards, two TDs) are mixed in as well.
Jake Rudock has had a tendency to be careless with the football, as he's tossed 12 interceptions, but for the most part the Hawkeyes' conservative play-calling has suited him well with 2,281 yards and 18 touchdowns on greater than 60 percent completion percentage, while rushing for an additional five scores.
Kevonte Martin-Manley (39 receptions, 384 yards, four TDs) is the top playmaker out wide and has also ran back a pair of punts for scores. CJ Fiedorowicz (26 receptions, 253 yards) becomes a bigger factor in the red zone, hauling in six touchdowns.
While the offense has failed to wow anyone, Iowa's big turnaround this season can be almost solely be attributed to its outstanding defense, which allows just 18.8 points and 303.2 yards, both numbers ranking in the top-11 nationally.
Not only does Anthony Hitchens lead the team with 102 tackles, but he makes plays all over the field from his linebacker position with 13.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Both Hitchens and James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 5.0 sacks, four INTs) were named Second Team All-Big Ten, while Tanner Miller and B.J. Lowery have also been stellar with three interceptions apiece.
LSU's offense was outstanding this season, putting up 37.0 points per game while displaying great balance between the run (200.8 ypg) and the pass (265.1 ypg). However, the unit carries a big unknown into this matchup without its starting quarterback.
After posting an excellent campaign (.649 completion percentage, 3,082 yards, 22 TDs, eight INTs), Zach Mettenberger was lost for the season earlier this month with a torn ACL.
"We are very disappointed for Zach," Miles said. "He's been a tremendous leader for our team and he's as competitive a guy as I have ever been around. He's had a great impact on our program."
In Mettenberger's absence, the keys to the offense will be handed over to freshman signal caller Anthony Jennings, who has seen very limited action this season (6-of-10, 99 yards, TD).
It remains to be seen how Jennings' presence will affect one of the nation's best receiving duos in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, both of whom where selected to the All-SEC second team. Landry hauled in 75 passes for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Beckham has caught 57 balls for 1,117 yards and eight scores, while adding another 947 return yards.
Without Mettenberger, expect the Tigers to rely even more heavily on the ground game. Jeremy Hill is the most utilized back, turning 175 carries into 1,185 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Terrence Magee (614 yards, eight TDs), Alfred Blue (317 yards, TD) and Kenny Hilliard (307 yards, seven TDs) are also actively involved.
While LSU's defense was not as dominant this year as it has been in seasons past, it was still stellar enough to support its high-scoring attack, allowing just 22.7 points per game, while holding opponents to under 40 percent on third down.
Lamin Barrow is the unit's leading tackler with 86 stops, while Jalen Miles (61 tackles) has picked off three passes. Anthony Johnson (7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Jermauria Rasco (6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) anchor a modest defensive line.