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Outback Bowl Preview and Prediction: Florida vs. Iowa

Jalen Tabor

Jalen Tabor

The 2017 Outback Bowl might not have been the bowl game the Florida Gators and the Iowa Hawkeyes had envisioned for themselves at the beginning of the season, but anytime the SEC and the Big Ten meet in a bowl game, it usually makes for an excellent game.

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Florida (8-4) won the SEC East for the second straight season but much like 2015, the Gators had a disappointing end. They lost their final two games to rivals Florida State and Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. So now Florida has its sights set on winning its first bowl game since the 2014 Birmingham Bowl against East Carolina.

Unlike the Gators, the Hawkeyes ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak. Iowa (8-4) defeated No. 2 Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska to finish 6-2 in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes have gotten embarrassed in their last two bowl games (2015 TaxSlayer Bowl against Tennessee and the 2016 Rose Bowl against Stanford), so they will be looking to turn that around.

Florida and Iowa have met three times, all of them in bowl games with the Gators winning twice. The last time the two teams met was in the 2006 Outback Bowl, a 31-24 Florida victory.

Outback Bowl: Florida vs. Iowa (Tampa, Fla.)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Florida -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Florida’s offense vs. Iowa’s defense

To say Florida is offensively challenged would be an understatement. The Gators finished the regular season ranked next to last in the SEC and 115th in the FBS in total offense. Florida’s offense will have its hands full against an Iowa defense that is among the best in college football.

Iowa ranks 24th in total defense, as the Hawkeyes give up an average of 352.8 yards per game. The defense is led by defensive back Desmond King and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, who were both first-team All-Big Ten selections. Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell, who led the Big Ten in tackles, was a finalist for the 2016 Butkus Award.

Florida quarterback Austin Appleby struggled against Alabama, finishing 26-of-39 as he threw for 261 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Not surprisingly, the Gators have had trouble scoring, averaging just 23.4 points per game (110th nationally). So, moving the ball against Iowa could be a challenge.

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2. Iowa’s offense vs. Florida’s defense

Believe or not, Iowa’s offense has fared even worse statistically than Florida’s, as the Hawkeyes are 120th in total offense at 333.3 yards per game. They have managed a little better when it comes to scoring (26.8 ppg), but that’s still only good enough to rank 77th among FBS teams.

Unlike the Gators, Iowa has a legitimate starting quarterback in C.J. Beathard, who is 21-6 in 27 career starts. His 40 career touchdowns rank sixth in school history. Beathard and the Hawkeyes’ offense will be challenged against a very stingy Florida defense.

Florida ranks sixth in total defense, giving up just 298.6 yards per game. The Gators also led the SEC in passing efficiency defense (98.36) and fourth in scoring defense (17.9 ppg) and sacks per game (2.50). Linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerback Jalen Tabor were two of the unit’s leaders and were All-SEC selections. However, Davis and two other linebackers - Alex Anzalone and David Reese - won't play in this game due to injury.

While Iowa was able to have success moving the ball against a tough Michigan defense, Florida’s could be the best the Hawkeyes have seen all season.

3. Special teams

Whenever two teams have a hard time moving the ball on offense, the superior special teams unit could be the difference in which one wins the game. In the Outback Bowl, the Gators have the advantage in that phase of this matchup.

Florida redshirt freshmen punter Johnny Townsend leads the FBS at 48.05 yards per attempt. Townsend placed 25 punts inside the 20 this season and kicked 28 that went for more than 50 yards.

The Gators also have the advantage when it comes to placekicking as Eddy Pinero has one of the biggest legs in college football. Pinero has made three field goals from 50 yards and beyond. he also ranks fourth in the FBS in kickoff average (64.5 yards) and seventh in touchback percentage (71.43 percent).

Final Analysis

If Iowa’s offensive line is able to pave the way for running backs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley, that will take pressure off C.J. Beathard and the passing game. The Hawkeyes don’t want to throw the football a ton because the Gators have one of the best secondaries in the nation.

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The key to the game could be Iowa’s ability to slow down Florida’s running game. The Hawkeyes are 7-0 when their defense limits opponents to 160 rushing yards or fewer. Over the past three games, Iowa has held Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska to fewer than 100 yards on the ground.

The team that wins the turnover battle and comes up with the bigger plays, especially on offense, will likely win the game. Beathard won’t have a big day throwing the ball, but he and the Hawkeyes will likely grind out enough points to pull out the close victory.

Prediction: Iowa 20, Florida 16

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.