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Outback Bowl Preview: Florida Gators, Iowa Hawkeyes headed for a slugfest

By Doug Bean, The Sports Xchange
Outback Bowl Preview: Florida Gators, Iowa Hawkeyes headed for a slugfest
What the Lord giveth, the Lord may taketh away when the Iowa Hawkeyes face the Florida Gators in the 2017 Outback Bowl on Jan. 2. Photo by Henry Kapulka/UPI | License Photo

The team that reaches 20 points stands a good chance of winning the Outback Bowl.

No. 17 Florida and unranked Iowa enter Monday's game (1 p.m., ABC) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., with two of the top defenses in the country and two of the lowest-ranked offenses. That's why this SEC-Big Ten matchup likely will be a slugfest.

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The Gators (8-4) finished the regular season ranked No. 6 in total defense in FBS, giving up 298.6 yards per game. Florida is stocked with NFL-caliber talent -- including cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson and outside linebacker Jarrad Davis --- on that side of the ball.

The Hawkeyes (8-4) are 26th in the country in total defense, allowing 352.8 yards per game. But Iowa has locked down its last three opponents -- Nebraska, Illinois and Michigan -- relinquishing an average of just 205.3 yards to finish the regular season.

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The two defenses are tied for ninth nationally in scoring defense, giving up 215 points in 12 games (17.9 per game).

Offensively, Florida and Iowa have struggled this year. In particular, both teams have found it difficult to throw the ball consistently well.

After the Gators were pounded 54-16 by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, they are 115th in the nation in total offense, averaging 345.1 yards per game.

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Uncertainty at quarterback compounds Florida's instability with its passing game. Purdue transfer Austin Appleby is expected to start. He took over during the season after Luke Del Rio suffered a shoulder injury.

Del Rio has returned to practice, but Florida coach Jim McElwain has said Appleby, who faced Iowa last year while at Purdue, will get the nod. Appleby passed for 1,225 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions this year.

Iowa's offense is even worse than Florida at No. 120 of 128 FBS teams, averaging just 333.3 yards per game. The run-heavy Hawkeyes are dragged down by their passing attack, which is led by capable quarterback C.J. Beathard but lacks big-time receivers and checks in at No. 115 in the nation with 161.3-yard average.

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A two-headed monster at running back powers the Iowa offense. Starter LeShun Daniels Jr. rushed for 158 yards in Iowa's 40-10 win over Nebraska in its last game and has 1,013 yards this season. Akrum Wadley is close to joining the 1,000-yard club with 966 after gaining 105 yards on 11 carries against the Cornhuskers.

McElwain is wary of Iowa trying to grind it out on the ground with clock-eating drives.

"You can't allow a team to just pound the ball on you," McElwain said. "You've got to at least force them to use both run and pass.

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"No secret, as any game we go into, it's about stopping the run first."

The Florida defense is good at shutting down the run after facing several big-time backs in the SEC this year but even better on the back end. The Gators are third nationally in pass defense, giving up just 156.3 yards per game.

"We're looking at a team that's been really good on defense the past two years," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "And they certainly are going to be a big foe for us that way."

On the Iowa side, its defense is giving up fewer than 200 yards passing per game. But the Hawkeyes could be vulnerable because injuries have left them with only three healthy cornerbacks, led by 2015 Thorpe Award winner Desmond King.

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Cornerbacks Greg Mabin (ankle) and freshman Manny Rugamba (shoulder) are out. That leaves sophomore Joshua Jackson and redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia opposite King.

"We're pretty much out of guys," Ferentz said. "That's just the way it is."

Iowa's safeties are experienced, though, and the linebacking group is led by Butkus Award finalist Josey Jewell.

"They do a great job of not allowing explosive plays," McElwain said. "You know, when you do that, and you don't let teams get into the end zone defensively, you give yourself a great opportunity to be successful, and obviously in Iowa's case, that's why they've been so successful for so many years."

Taking all of the numbers into consideration, the game promises to be a defensive battle won in the trenches and possibly on special teams.

"We're going to have to be opportunistic to have a chance to win this thing," Ferentz said.

Florida and Iowa have hooked up twice previously in the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes won the first meeting 37-17 in 2004 and the Gators, coached by Urban Meyer, prevailed 31-24 in 2006.

Iowa is searching for its first postseason victory since beating Missouri in the Insight Bowl in 2010. The Hawkeyes have lost their last four bowls -- Insight, Outback, TaxSlayer and Rose.

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Starting with the win over Iowa in the last Outback matchup, Florida is 7-3 in its last 10 bowl games but has lost two of its last three, including a 41-7 drubbing by Michigan in the Citrus Bowl a year ago.

Iowa and Florida each have a 2-2 record in four previous Outback appearances.

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