After a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2012, the Iowa Hawkeyes are returning to a January bowl game for the seventh time in the last 12 years. This time, it's against the No. 16 LSU Tigers in the Outback Bowl.
Hawkeye fans are excited and will fill up Raymond James Stadium on New Year's Day. According to Andrew Logue of The Des Moines Register on Hawk Central, Iowa was only 600 tickets shy of selling its quota of 11,500 as of Dec. 27.
While Iowa is a 7.5-point underdog (per VegasInsider), Kirk Ferentz is 4-1 against current SEC teams with the Hawkeyes. That includes their dramatic victory over the Tigers in the 2005 Capital One Bowl when Drew Tate threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Warren Holloway as time expired.
For the 8-4 Hawkeyes to bring a fourth trophy back to Iowa City this season, they will need to overcome an LSU team that is 21st in scoring at 37 points per game and 30th in scoring defense at 22.7 points.
How can Iowa pull it off?
(All 2013 statistical rankings are courtesy of NCAA.com unless noted otherwise. All rankings are valid as of Dec. 30.)
Historically, Iowa has been strong against the traditional power-running teams under Ferentz.
The Hawkeyes own the 17th-ranked rushing defense at 120.8 yards, but they gave up 135 and 218 yards to Michigan State and Wisconsin, respectively.
While the Tigers bring a balanced offensive attack and average a seventh-best 7.42 yards per play (via Phil Steele), they average 200.8 yards on the ground, which is 31st in the nation. The LSU offensive line is a heavy one up front at 315 pounds per man, including the 350-pound Vadal Alexander.
In the backfield, Jeremy Hill is the man to stop, who has rushed for 1,185 yards and 14 touchdowns with a 6.8-yard-per-carry average. As a 6'2" 235-pound physical back who will get a vast majority of the first-down carries, he does a great job breaking tackles and falling forward when he's brought down.
Hill has also caught 18 passes for 181 yards. Both are third most on the team.
But when Hill needs a rest, Terrence Magee is there, who has racked up 614 yards and eight touchdowns of his own. As a complement to Hill, Magee is the smaller back with great speed.
For Iowa, limiting LSU's ground attack will be a significant challenge, but it's an important task. In the Tigers' three losses against Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, they ran for 77, 114 and 43 yards, respectively, their three lowest running outputs of the season.
This is not only where Carl Davis and the defensive line comes in, it's the senior linebacking core of James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey.
If Iowa can put LSU into longer second- and third-down situations, defensive coordinator Phil Parker can dial up some more blitzes, much like he did in the regular-season finale against Nebraska.
Putting quarterbacks into longer distances on third down is obviously an advantage for the defense, but it's particularly an edge when the quarterback is a freshman with limited experience. The highly regarded Zach Mettenberger, who recorded 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air this season, left near the end of LSU's final regular-season contest against Arkansas with an ACL injury and is out for the bowl game.
So here comes Anthony Jennings.
Jennings has made several brief appearances this season, but his most notable one was when he led the game-winning drive and tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural against a busted coverage to defeat the Razorbacks.
While Jennings is six of 10 for 99 yards with one touchdown on the year, we don't know a lot about the young man. He's got speed and mobility, and he will take off and run if he can't find a receiver.
But quarterbacks with speed and mobility aren't anything new to the Hawkeyes. Having seen Jordan Lynch, Braxton Miller and Kain Colter, Jennings' athleticism shouldn't catch Iowa off guard.
Although, given that LSU head coach Les Miles has had a month to prepare Jennings, perhaps there will be some new wrinkles that Iowa can't study on film of LSU's season. The Tigers have essentially ran a pro-style offense with Mettenberger, but will they bring in more designed quarterback runs or any form of the option with Jennings?
It's certainly possible.
The one thing working in the Hawkeyes' favor is that they also have a solid pass defense. They give up 182.4 yards in the air, which is 11th best in the nation.
This will be Jennings' first collegiate start and the Iowa defense is no picnic to make a debut against. If he faces pressure and can't escape the pocket, his decision-making ability will be tested.
Finally, the Hawkeyes made it through a regular season without any significant running back issues. Interestingly enough, the Hawkeyes were last in the nation in rushing at 74.9 yards per game and down to their fifth- and sixth-string running backs at one point in 2004, the same season they defeated LSU in the Capital One Bowl.
In terms of depth, the running game is now arguably the Hawkeyes' strongest asset.
Most people know about the bulldozer Mark Weisman, who finished the regular season with 938 yards and seven touchdowns. After he made a lot of noise on national television when he bounced off multiple defenders against Nebraska and took the ball inside the 1-yard line, Weisman is a prime candidate for a Gruden Grinder award against the Tigers.
But while Damon Bullock and LeShun Daniels have had an impact at times this season, Jordan Canzeri has emerged as the strong No. 2 back. He's averaging 7.7 yards per carry in the last four games.
In a similar way to Hill and Magee for LSU, Canzeri provides more speed and shiftiness when Weisman takes a break.
But even though Canzeri has only caught four passes on the season, LSU can't sleep on him when it comes to check downs and screen passes. He started at running back in the 2011 Insight Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners, when he caught six passes and took one of them into the end zone.
The Tigers give up 148.8 yards on the ground, which is 43rd in the nation. As far as statistics go, it will be the fifth-best rushing defense Iowa will have faced this season (Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State are all in the top six).
While some would dispute that and mention that this is an SEC defense and that statistics only mean so much, let's take a look at the last time Iowa was in the Outback Bowl.
The Gamecocks were 38th in the nation in rushing defense at 128.7 yards per game and had faced tough running backs like Georgia's Knowshon Moreno or Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Yet with Shonn Greene and Jewel Hampton, the Hawkeyes ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns that ultimately ended in a 31-10 Iowa victory.
Obviously LSU isn't South Carolina, but Ferentz has consistently produced offensive lineman that move on to the NFL and his teams can run against great competition.
Bringing a good dose of Weisman with some Canzeri sprinkled in there is the best method for success. Look for Weisman to get about 75 percent of the designed carries with Canzeri coming in there for the other 25.
We haven't seen much of Damond Powell in the last few games. In fact, while he had one carry for seven yards against Michigan, Powell hasn't had a reception since the Wisconsin matchup on Nov. 2.
Perhaps Powell's decreased role is because Ferentz didn't want to stretch the field as much in the frigid November temperatures and higher winds that ripped through the Midwest. Or maybe Powell isn't where the coaches want him to be as far as route running and consistency.
But as it does every year, this LSU secondary has tremendous speed and technique. It only allows an 18th-ranked 200.8 yards in the air.
Powell will need to be in on a handful of plays whether he's targeted or just used as a decoy.
Through the first five games of the season, he only had four catches, but they combined for 206 yards. He's ran the go route and caught deep passes behind the secondary, but he's also been used in the screen game and once boosted 74 yards for a touchdown.
Again, Powell will likely only touch the ball a couple times, but his presence alone is meant to keep the defense honest and respect the long ball. Should the speedster catch a deep one early on, that should open things up for Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Winning the turnover battle is an obvious key for any team, but it's particularly important for the Hawkeyes. While they do play uptempo at times, they are a run-first team that takes pride in time of possession and ball security.
In all of the Hawkeyes' four losses, they had a negative turnover margin. In all of their victories, they only lost the turnover battle against Michigan but needed a clutch Hitchens forced fumble and recovery to end the Wolverines' potential game-winning drive.
As far as lost fumbles go, Iowa had its issues early on with four giveaways in nonconference play. But in Big Ten action, the Hawkeyes only coughed it up twice.
For the efficient quarterback Jake Rudock, eliminating the interceptions are certainly a key, but especially in Iowa territory. For this to happen, Iowa must be careful with play action inside its 15-yard line.
In that scenario, Rudock threw a pick-six against Michigan to give the Wolverines an early 7-0 lead. He also gave up an interception to Wisconsin in the third quarter that quickly led to a Badgers passing touchdown to give them their first lead of the game.
When it comes to avoiding the special teams mistake, Hawkeye fans know this has to do with defending the fake punt.
Iowa has had difficulty in the past stopping the fake punt, including one against Northern Illinois and another versus Michigan State this season. Both games resulted in losses.
However, the Hawkeyes halted Nebraska's attempt and instantly turned that momentum into seven points on a Rudock touchdown pass to Martin-Manley. That game ended with a Hawkeye victory.
Maybe it will come on one of Miles' crazy fake field-goal designs, but in a bowl game, you know Miles is going to try something. We know that moment could easily decide the outcome.