This bowl season, the Iowa Hawkeyes will suit up against the Oklahoma Sooners. The Hawks will attempt to win their fourth bowl game in a row, and this might be the tallest bowl game task in the Kirk Ferentz era.
Vegas is giving Oklahoma 16 points, which, as has been mentioned by every media outlet that covers Iowa in any capacity, is the largest point spread out of all the bowl games.
If Iowa's last game of the season was any indication, the Hawks may have trouble covering that number. On the other hand, the Sooners—who were embarrassed 10-44 by in-state rival Oklahoma State—didn't look much better in the final game of their season.
Sixteen points or not, mutual discontent by the respective fanbases or not, there is still a football game to be played, and my bet is that Iowa has a good chance to surprise some pundits.
This will be the biggest matchup when the Iowa offense is on the field.
This season, the Big Ten only had one elite defensive end,—Illinois' Whitney Mercilus—and the Hawkeyes didn't face him. The conference had some high-quality pass-rushers, but almost all of them were defensive tackles.
In effect, Iowa tackles Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics haven't had many tough individual matchups.
This game, they will face the best individual defensive end they have seen all year.
Frank Alexander is projected to go late first/early second round in this year's draft. On the other side of the coin, though, the Big 12 didn't have much in the way of elite offensive tackles this year. Therefore, Alexander will face his toughest foes of the season in Reiff and Zusevics.
Reiff is a junior who, if he does declare himself eligible for the draft, would likely go in the Top 20. Zusevics isn't elite, but he is solid, experienced and has improved as the season has worn on.
The Sooners would have had the toughest end pairing that the Hawks have faced this season, but their other starting end—junior Ronnell Lewis—is suspended.
The Sooners had 37 sacks this year, which was good for second-best in the Big 12 and would have been good for second-best in the Big Ten (behind Michigan State, which had 41).
Intra-conference stats are not transferable since the Big 12 plays a different style of football than the Big Ten, and who can say how Oklahoma would have fared against Big Ten competition (or MSU against the Big 12)?
Nevertheless, it is evident that OU has a dominant pass-rush.
Two of Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg's issues have been trouble with the weak-side pass-rush—particularly on blitzes—and failing to keep his eyes downfield when the pocket breaks down.
For this reason, the Reiff/Zusevics vs. Alexander matchup will be particularly important.
However, JVB will have to do a better job of reading and reacting to pressure than he has in the past.
Assuming Iowa can find a starting tailback, there should be room to move the ball on the ground against Oklahoma.
The Sooner rush-defense was 45th in the nation, allowing 3.82 YPC.
By comparison, Iowa—which had its worst rush-defense in more than 10 years—was 39th and allowed 3.74 YPC.
On the other hand, Oklahoma did play a tougher schedule.
The Big 12 team that most resembles the Hawks in terms of offensive scheme are the Texas A&M Aggies, who lost to the Sooners, but OU gave up more than five YPC on the ground.
The problem for Iowa will be finding a starting tailback.
The would-be starting tailback, Marcus Coker, is suspended. The backup starting tailback, true freshman Mika'il McCall, is also suspended.
That leaves true freshman Jordan Canzeri, who is all of 170 pounds, has nine carries in his career and who missed the final two games of the season with a hamstring injury.
The presumed second in line is redshirt freshman De'Andre Johnson. He had 18 carries on the season and performed well. However, one would have thought he might have picked up at least one carry in Iowa's final four games, given that it was obvious how much Coker could have used an occasional breather.
Finally, there is walk-on Jason White and true freshman receiver-turned-running back-turned-receiver-turned-running back Damon Bullock.
Hawkeye defensive coordinator Norm Parker will retire following the Insight Bowl.
Perhaps the moving on of a DC wouldn't inspire much emotion in most programs. Nevertheless, Parker has been with the Hawks for 13 years, and is one of the more beloved characters in college football.
Expect the Iowa defense to put in an emotional performance, win or lose.
The Big 12 had some quality receivers this season. The following is how the conference's best receivers fared against the Sooners:
Kendall Wright, Baylor: 8 REC, 208 YDS, 26.00 YPR, 1 TD; statistically, this was his second-best game of the season.
Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State: 10 REC, 95 YDS, 9.50 YPR, 0 TD
Ryan Swope, Texas A&M: 8 REC, 149 YDS, 18.63 YPR, 1 TD; this was his second-best game of the season.
T.J. Moe, Missouri: 7 REC, 119 YDS, 17.00 YPR, 0 TD; this was Moe's best game of the season.
Eric Ward, Texas Tech: 6 REC, 78 YDS, 13.00 YPR, 0 TD
Oklahoma also played a quality receiver in its non-conference game against Tulsa:
Willie Carter, Tulsa: 5 REC, 135 YDS, 27.00 YPR, 0 TD; this was Carter's third-best performance of the season and, keep in mind, he plays in Conference USA.
In short, opportunities should be there for Marvin McNutt—the Big Ten's best receiver—to make plays. Things should be made easier by Keenan Davis' return to form; he was less than 100 percent from the Indiana game forward.
Speaking of injuries, Oklahoma will be short a number of players for the Insight Bowl.
First of all, the Sooners' leading receiver, Ryan Broyles, has missed most of November and will miss the bowl game.
Furthermore, third receiver Jaz Reynolds went to the hospital following the Oklahoma State game. He has a kidney injury and has been ruled out for the bowl game.
Top running back Dominique Whaley missed all of November and will not return for the bowl.
Reserve running back Brandon Williams and fullback Aaron Ripowski will also miss the bowl game.
Finally, defensive lineman Ronnell Lewis will be suspended, and defensive end Frank Alexander will play, but probably won't be 100 percent.
The biggest loss is Broyles, though Reynolds further complicates that loss.
Sophomore Kenny Stills is the only starting receiver who will play.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones came into the season on the short list of Heisman favorites. He started off well, but since Ryan Broyles' injury, both Jones and the Sooner O have looked downright human.
Before Broyes' injury, the Sooners went 8-1 and averaged 45.44 PPG. After his injury, they went 1-2 and averaged 24.67 PPG.
Previous to the injury, 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.
On top of missing Broyles, the recipe for beating Jones was made fairly obvious over the Sooners' last few games—pressure him.
Oklahoma State shut down Jones and the Oklahoma offense by throwing everything it had at the Sooners, but that is the Cowboys' standard M.O.
Will Iowa—which typically avoids committing more than four players to the pass-rush—follow OSU's lead?
JVB's 2011 Stats vs. Unranked Teams: 8 G, 65 PCT, 2,022 YDS, 9.1 YPA, 20 TD, 2 INT, 168.99 passer efficiency rating
JVB's 2011 Stats vs. Ranked teams: 4 G, 50.4 PCT, 784 YDS, 5.7 YPA, 3 TD, 4 INT. 99.83 passer efficiency rating
In this case, stats tell the whole story with Vandenberg, whose Hawks went 1-3 against ranked foes.
Quarterbacks and offenses in general expect to have a tougher go of it against ranked opponents—that is why they are ranked.
However, that egregious a difference is alarming.
By comparison, Michigan's Denard Robinson had an efficiency rating of 146.54 against ranked foes and 122.27 against unranked opponents.
Purdue's Caleb TerBush had an efficiency rating of 132.27 against ranked teams and 119.76 against unranked teams.
Ricky Stanzi had a 133.70 rating against unranked opponents and a 125.58 rating against ranked opponents his junior year in 2009. In Stanzi's senior year, he had a 160.55 ranking against unranked foes and 150.87 against ranked teams.
Needless to say, Oklahoma is ranked.
JVB's 2011 Home Game Stats: 7 G, 61.4 PCT, 1,798 YDS, 8.7 YPA, 17 TD, 3 INT, 158.51 passer efficiency rating
JVB's 2011 Away Game Stats: 5 G, 56.9 PCT, 1,008 YDS, 6.6 YPA, 6 TD, 3 INT, 121.22 passer efficiency rating
Obviously, this is not an away game in the strictest sense. Officially, it is a neutral-site game, and judging by the ticket sales, Iowa fans will outnumber Oklahoma fans.
Nonetheless, Vandenberg has never played a neutral-site game, and one can only guess why away games affect him as much as they appear to.
Will being away from the friendly confines of Kinnick bother him this time?
It's been mentioned before, but neither team has much to gain in this game.
If Iowa wins, the question will be, what's wrong with the Sooners?
And if Iowa loses, then they will meet most pundits' expectations.
From Oklahoma's point of view, there is nothing to be gained from this matchup.
Complicating mutual fan discontent is the issue that both teams are experiencing an excessive amount of attrition, and both teams had disappointing seasons.
Furthermore, speaking as a Hawkeye fan, there isn't much to get excited about with this program right about now.
I think most Iowa fans realize the Hawks will never reach "the next level" under Kirk Ferentz, which means they're waiting around for the right mix of players and a few fortuitous bounces like the 2009 season.
Other than that, the worry is that Iowa has plateaued, and while 7-5 seasons are a great deal better than 5-7 seasons, they're hardly worth the emotion that is spent on them.
Of course, maybe this only applies to the fans; maybe the players are as amped as ever.
But having seen the Hawks plod through the Minnesota game two seasons in a row, I'm left to wonder.
1. Lead with the pass.
Oklahoma has proven susceptible to the pass and big-play receivers.
Iowa has two of them.
Come out passing and give JVB a chance to get into an early rhythm. After all, the Hawks' best offensive plays consistently occur on their first (scripted) drive. JVB needs to get into an immediate comfort zone.
If Vandenberg comes out as off as he was against Nebraska, the Hawkeyes stand no chance.
2. Come back to the run.
The running game will open up if Iowa can move the ball through the air early. If that happens, whoever is at running back and the line have to punish the OU front through the second and third quarters.
Of course, if the Hawkeyes can't find an effective running back, then they have to go pass-first ala 2004. Running into defensive walls won't serve any purpose.
3. Pressure Landry Jones.
For all the issues Jones has had over the last few games, he will play like the Jones who dissected Kansas State if the Hawks let him sit in the pocket. However they do it, the Hawkeyes have to get to the Oklahoma signal-caller.
4. Punish Roy Finch.
Oklahoma starting running back Roy Finch is small (5'6", 166 pounds) and has questions concerning his durability. With Dominique Whaley and Brandon Williams out, the Sooners have depth issues at tailback.
Wear Finch down and force OU into a one-dimensional offense.
5. Win this one for Norm.
Come out with emotion. Norm deserves one more big win.