The stars appear to have aligned for the second season in a row.
For the second straight season, the Iowa Hawkeyes will travel to the Insight Bowl, where they will face a team that, on paper, appears to be much better than them.
Last year, the 7-5 Hawks faced the 10-2 No. 14-ranked Missouri Tigers.
They wound up winning, 27-24, despite getting shredded for 512 yards and 434 yards through the air.
Of course, last season's 7-5 team may have been the best seven-win team in the country.
This season's 7-5 team cannot make such a boast.
Furthermore, this year's opponent—the 9-3 Oklahoma Sooners—may be the best nine-win team in the country. Once again, last season's opponent couldn't make such a statement.
One of the people in the stands at last year's Insight Bowl was Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. He was wearing an Iowa Hawkeye sweater vest and cheering for his alma mater as he prepared his team to take on Connecticut a few nights later in the Fiesta Bowl.
Early lines show Oklahoma as a 14-point favorite, which is sure to be one of the more lopsided spreads this bowl season.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to count the Hawkeyes out, as they have proven time and time again that they are most dangerous when they are underdogs.
Date and Time: Friday, Dec. 30, 2011. 9:00 p.m. CST
Place: Tempe, AZ
Coverage: ESPN and streaming on ESPN3.com
Iowa has only played Oklahoma once, in 1979.
The hapless Hawkeyes were breaking in a new coach. He was an ex-Marine named Hayden Fry. Meanwhile, national power Oklahoma was having a historic run under coaching legend Barry Switzer.
OU won the game, 21-6. Iowa finished the season 5-6, while the Sooners wound up 11-1.
The Hawkeyes starting free safety was an 18-year-old freshman from Youngstown, Ohio. His name was Bob Stoops. He went on to be a four-year starter for the Hawks.
After finishing his college career, he became an Iowa graduate assistant under Hayden Fry.
In 1989, Hawkeye offensive coordinator Bill Snyder became head coach at Kansas State, and Stoops was among the many coaches he took with him. Stoops was the Wildcats defensive backs coach until 1991, when he became the co-defensive coordinator.
In 1996, he left K-State to become the defensive coordinator at Florida under Steve Spurrier. He was the DC during Florida's 1997 national championship run.
In 1999, Hayden Fry stepped down as the Iowa coach due to health issues. At the same time, Oklahoma fired its coach—John Blake—due to five straight non-winning seasons.
Stoops, one of the hottest coaching candidates in college football, interviewed for both jobs.
Then Iowa-AD Bob Bowlsby interviewed Stoops first and former Iowa offensive line coach and then-current Baltimore Ravens O-line coach Kirk Ferentz second.
Legend has it that Oklahoma told Stoops that he had the job, but he had to take it immediately. He informed Bowlsby that he wanted an offer or else he would take the Oklahoma job. Bowlsby reportedly felt that it wouldn't be fair to his other top candidate to not give him a chance to interview.
In effect, Stoops took the OU job, Ferentz became the head coach at Iowa and the rest is history.
Between 1999-2010, Stoops' Sooners are the second-winningest program in all of college football. They have gone 121-39 over that period for a winning percentage of .80625.
In that time, OU has won seven Big 12 championships and one national championship. They have been to, and lost, the BCS National Championship Game three other times.
Stoops' record in bowl games is 6-6, though he is 3-5 in BCS bowl games. He had a five-game BCS bowl game losing streak heading into last season's Fiesta Bowl meeting with UConn, which the Sooners handily won, 48-20.
Needless to say, his record in non-BCS bowls is 3-1, with his one loss coming to Ole Miss in the 1999 Independence Bowl—Stoops' first season.
Final Record: 9-3 (6-3 in conference)
Highest Ranking: No. 1 to open the season
Offensive Stats: 40.3 PPG, 4.64 YPC, 139.68 quarterback passing efficiency, 42.31 percent on third down conversions, nine sacks allowed, 88.52 percent red zone conversions, 88.9 percent field goal success, 28 turnovers lost.
Defensive Stats: 22.8 PPG, 3.82 YPC, 118.3 quarterback passer efficiency, 30.17 percent on third down conversions, 37 sacks, 74.29 red zone conversions, 73.7 percent field goal success, 25 turnovers gained.
Key Wins: 23-13 win over Florida State, 38-28 win over Missouri, 55-17 win over Texas, 58-17 win over Kansas State, 45-25 win over Texas A&M.
Losses: 38-41 loss to Texas Tech, 38-45 loss to Baylor, 10-44 loss to Oklahoma State.
The Sooners tagged ISU for over 500 yards while only allowing 245. The game was kept relatively close due to OU giving up four turnovers, including three interceptions.
Comparatively, the Hawks only gained 365 yards on the Clones while allowing 463.
Top OU receiver and likely All-American Ryan Broyles suffered a knee injury against Texas A&M, thus effectively ending his season and college career.
Before Broyes' injury, the Sooners went 8-1 and averaged 45.44 points-per-game. After his injury, they went 1-2 and averaged 24.67 PPG.
Previous to the injury, OU quarterback Landry Jones had an efficiency rating of 155.14. He threw 28 touchdowns to nine interceptions.
In the three games following Broyles' injury, Jones posted an efficiency rating of 107.68. He threw zero touchdowns to five interceptions.
Also, top Oklahoma running back Dominique Whaley has been out since mid-October with an ankle injury, and he will not return this year.
On offense, the Sooners primarily run pro-sets. They use tight ends, fullbacks and three wide receivers.
They operate out of the no-huddle and use the pass to open up the run.
They look for the big play, and in the offense-happy Big 12, the Sooners came in third in plays from scrimmage of 30-yards-or-longer.
On defense, they run a 4-3.
Like Iowa, they prefer to let their front four handle the pass rush, but unlike Iowa, they are more than happy to blitz when the situation calls for it.
Landry Jones, Quarterback
The junior is the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL Draft and is projected to be a top 20 pick.
He is strong-armed and accurate, but his recent struggles without top receiver Ryan Broyles in the lineup leave questions about whether he has the "it" factor and can push his team to win when necessary.
Ben Habern, Center
The senior is an All-Big 12 center. Walter Football ranks him as the fifth-best center in this season's draft.
He missed some games this year with injuries. He is not a huge player and might remind Iowa fans of Michigan center Dave Molk. Has been inconsistent, but is still a solid element in OU's shotgun, pass-heavy offense.
Roy Finch, Running Back
Sophomore Finch was the backup before Dominque Whaley was lost for the season.
He is small—5'6", 166 pounds—and has some durability issues. He is not an every-down back, and has averaged far fewer than 20 carries per game since taking over as the starter.
He is not going to move the pile, and he is not a big threat in the red zone or on third downs. However, he has a solid burst, is a good receiver out of the backfield and is a home-run threat.
Frank Alexander, Defensive End
The senior finished the season with 8.5 sacks, 18 tackles-for-loss, one interception and three forced fumbles. He missed the season finale against Oklahoma State with a shoulder injury, but should be ready to play in the bowl.
He is not a large end—6'4", 255 pounds—and is similar to Pitt's Brandon Lindsay, who Iowa faced earlier in the season, though, of course, Alexander is a much better player.
He currently projects to go late first-early second round.
Ronnell Lewis, Defensive End
The junior is another small—6'2", 244 pounds—lineman that projects as a rush linebacker at the next level.
He finished the regular season with 5.5 sacks, 13 TFL, one interception and one forced fumble.
Lewis is arguably the more naturally gifted of OU's ends, but he is decidedly less polished.
The Hawkeyes haven't played many elite defensive ends this year, let alone two on one team. In effect, tackles Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics will have their work cut out for them.
Tom Wort, Middle Linebacker
Wort is already experienced as a sophomore. According to Walterfootball.com, Wort could enter the draft this season and go in the second round.
He is still unpolished, but in terms of athleticism, he is a top player. He finished the season with 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL and one interceptions.
The Hawks had trouble with Nebraska's Levonte David—the best linebacker they will see this season. In effect, they will have figure out how to attack Wort.
Right about now, the Hawkeye fanbase is not especially happy with their coach, and I don't think they're terribly excited about this bowl game.
It is not the game itself, or even the team's record this season. Rather, it is how it came about, and how head coach Kirk Ferentz has seemingly gotten complacent and allowed his coordinators to do a less-than-stellar job without any consequences.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma fans are in the same boat.
Of course, Oklahoma fans demand a great deal more from their coach and their program than Iowa fans. If Iowa had OU's 9-3 record this season, Hawkeye fans would be ecstatic. If Iowa had gone to the Fiesta Bowl last season, they would think the Hawks had reached new heights.
Not so for OU fans.
Nevertheless, the two fanbases seem to share the same attitude towards the head coach and program.
According to Oklahoma blog Crimson and Cream Machine, Bob Stoops' "obvious unwillingness to demand more than the status quo while never failing to remind us of all that [he's] accomplished after [his] most recent failures has become incredibly played out."
Does that sound like something Iowa fans might say about Kirk Ferentz?
Crimson and Cream goes on, "A substantial philosophical change is needed and [Stoops is] the only one who can make it. That doesn't mean [he has] to fire all [his] friends...this isn't a rant calling for the entire staff to be fired. To be honest, they can all come back if [Stoops wants] and given [his] track record I'm quite sure it is. But the same ol' same old ain't good enough anymore."
Again, sound familiar, Hawkeye fans?
In the end, Oklahoma is a blue blood, elite program, and Iowa is not. However, Kirk Ferentz/Iowa and Bob Stoops/Oklahoma are two sides of the same coin, and an Insight Bowl win for either program probably won't change the respective fanbases' current dissatisfaction.