Mississippi State and Iowa both have the potential to make the Outback Bowl a win-win for their fan bases. Both teams want to cap their seasons with a win streak and deliver free appetizers in the process as a Hawkeye victory means free coconut shrimp and a Bulldog win means free Bloomin’ Onions at Outback Steakhouse locations. The Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC) are on a two-game tear having toppled Arkansas 52-6 and rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl 35-3. The Hawkeyes (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) shredded Illinois 63-0 before putting away hated Nebraska in gut-wrenching fashion, 31-28.
Tampa, Florida, is hardly a new bowl destination to Iowa, who is tied with Michigan for the most appearances with this being their sixth, claiming a 2-3 record thus far. The Bulldogs look to win the game’s prizes for the first time ever.
Joe Moorehead’s first season as Mississippi State’s head man showed that Dan Mullen’s departure for Florida wouldn’t result in a dip with wins over then-Nos. 8 and 16 Auburn and Texas A&M, respectfully. Iowa’s season looks rather familiar in Kirk Ferentz’s 20th year. Eight wins yet again, however where the disappointment really sets in is that they dropped games to division foes Wisconsin, Purdue and Northwestern cementing a tie for second in the Big Ten West. This season marks the Hawkeyes’ third straight eight-win campaign and fifth in the past nine.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools offering an interesting challenge between a fresh face on the Mississippi State sideline and the longest-tenured head coach in the college game on Iowa’s.
Outback Bowl: Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, FL.)
Spread: Mississippi State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Iowa’s offense versus the Mississippi State defense
This is where Iowa must excel to have the best chance for a win. The Bulldogs have more talent (a 247Sports composite ranking of 24th versus the Hawkeyes’ 46th in 2018) and Iowa made most of their offensive progress against a schedule that was moderately difficult at best. Kirk Ferentz will be without a major weapon in tight end Noah Fant who is skipping the game to prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft. As a result, quarterback Nate Stanley will have to lean on running backs Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin to keep the Mississippi State defense honest and not force offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to resort to being one-dimensional.
The Hawkeyes have their work more than cut out for them as they’ll be facing a defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in all four major categories — first in scoring (12.0 ppg), third in total (268.4 ypg), sixth in passing (164.2 ypg), and 10th in rushing (104.3 ypg). First-team All-SEC defensive ends Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat are a dynamic duo for the Bulldogs that can legitimately break the defensive huddle saying, “Meet you at the quarterback.” Second-team All-SEC safety Johnathan Abram will be looking to sabotage both Iowa’s run and passing games as he sticks to receivers like glue and is extremely quick off the edge.
2. Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson
Fant’s departure removes both an excellent decoy and Iowa’s second-most productive receiver. Hockenson has done a tremendous job of being everything Stanley needs in a target, though. The Mackey Award winner averages roughly 60 yards per game with those coming in big chunks of 15.6 yards per catch.
No doubt Mississippi State will make sure the 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore is blanketed, forcing wide receivers Nick Easley, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith to step up their games. If they can come through and Iowa can take advantage of Sargent in a receiving role, that should allow Hockenson to break free a time or two offering Stanley a chance to capitalize.
3. The second quarter
Over the course of the year, Iowa’s been able to make decent offensive adjustments from the first to second quarter. They’ve put up 7.4 points on average in the second stanza versus 4.7 in the first. The Hawkeyes absolutely must go into the half with a lead of any kind in order to win. In the second half, they only average 3.2 points in both the third and fourth quarters. Meanwhile, Mississippi State has yet to dip below six from the first to the fourth. Keep in mind that success has come against top-10 defensive talent and a more difficult schedule.
If Iowa trails going into the half, the Hawkeyes must immediately score on their next possession or the game is likely over.
Iowa has a great pair of defensive ends as well in Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa. The difference between them and the Bulldogs' duo is that they’ll be trying to take down a true dual-threat in Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Nate Stanley is a pass-first player with a respectable 2,638 yards on the season to go with a 23:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
However, Fitzgerald has tallied 27 touchdowns with more than 1,600 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards. Even in their victory against Nebraska, the Hawkeyes surrendered 76 rushing yards, 260 passing yards and three total touchdowns to electric true freshman Adrian Martinez.
Fitzgerald is a seasoned senior which means Amari Hooker — a dynamic linebacker/safety hybrid – is going to have to be on his game to hinder what the Bulldog quarterback can do. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker isn’t in an enviable position.
Ultimately, Mississippi State has better talent and has sharpened it versus better competition. Iowa will get yardage, but kicker Miguel Recinos looks like he may have the most productive day of any Hawkeye offensive player. This looks to be a solid battle, but the Bulldogs grade out well enough to cover the spread and deliver deep-fried onions to all.
Prediction: Mississippi State 27, Iowa 19
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces).