In his 20 seasons leading the Iowa Hawkeyes, Kirk Ferentz has coached as many games in Tampa, Florida, as in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Columbus, Ohio.
And he's back for another one. The Hawkeyes make their sixth Outback Bowl appearance today when they face No. 18 Mississippi State.
“There are no bad bowls,” Ferentz said. “Some are better than others, but there are no bad ones.”
Sure, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes (8-4) would rather play in a New Year's Six bowl. But because they lost three consecutive Big Ten games by a total of 12 points, they instead drew a return trip to Florida's west coast.
And they're likely to have their hands full against the Bulldogs (8-4), who have a stout defense and are favored by a touchdown in their first Outback Bowl appearance.
The Hawkeyes are 2-3 in the Outback Bowl, including losses in their two most recent visits, 30-3 against Florida two years ago and 21-14 against LSU five years ago.
“You always play a top-notch SEC opponent, and that's going to be the case here,” Ferentz said.
The Bulldogs have been inconsistent under first-year coach Joe Moorhead, with only one game decided by less than 14 points. But all of their losses came against teams in the top 15, and they lead the nation with a scoring defense average of 12.0 points.
The Bulldogs have a shot at their biggest bowl win since they beat Michigan in the Gator Bowl eight years ago. The Hawkeyes are seeking their biggest bowl win since the 2009 season, when they beat No. 9 Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Iowa junior tight end Noah Fant, a third-team All-American, is leaving school early to enter the NFL draft and won't play in the game. He leads the Hawkeyes with seven touchdowns.
Ferentz said Fant's decision is a sign of the times.
“You want guys on the bus and on the sideline that are fully invested,” Ferentz said. “What we do is so hard and so competitive that if you're not fully into it, it's not good for anybody. I certainly respect Noah's decision.”
The Hawkeyes still have second-team All-American T.J. Hockenson, who won the John Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end. They will continue to line up with two tight ends on occasion, Ferentz said.
For the teams, the Outback Bowl schedule included trips to the beach, the Tampa waterfront, an NHL game and Busch Gardens. The balancing act of preparing for the game while also enjoying the rewards that come with a bowl visit is always a challenge, Moorhead said.
“It's being able to compartmentalize,” he said, “being able to turn the football switch on and off and turn the have-fun switch on and off, and make sure the too-much-fun ain't taking away from the football.”