JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Not long after NASCAR mega-star Dale Earnhardt Jr. tosses the coin before Friday's TaxSlayer Bowl, Iowa's offense will take the field at EverBank Field.
And maybe the richest drama of the Hawkeyes' season will begin to unfold before an ESPN audience.
How quarterbacks Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard are dispatched — coaches have said both will get snaps — and how they perform in the 2:20 p.m. game against Tennessee carries loads of significance for the short- and possibly long-term future of Hawkeye football.
The short-term piece is whether Iowa wins or loses to cap what was, by all measures, a disappointing 7-5 season. The long-term piece stems from how that result happens and the chain reaction that follows.
That will affect whether Beathard, a redshirt sophomore, transfers elsewhere for his final two years of college. At least that's what his father, Casey, told The (Nashville) Tennessean on Dec. 22, and C.J. himself said that day of his Iowa future: "We'll see how the bowl game goes and then go from there."
What happens with Beathard could prove to be a huge event for an Iowa program that has gone 7-5, 7-5, 4-8, 8-4 and 7-5 in the last five regular seasons following the 2009 Orange Bowl team.
If he leaves, Iowa's QB situation is less stable for the next two seasons — Rudock and no proven backup in 2015, then complete uncertainty in 2016. At this point, the candidates would be the only other Hawkeye QB currently on scholarship, true freshman Tyler Wiegers, or two guys still in high school, Ryan Boyle of Dowling Catholic and Drew Cook of Iowa City Regina.
If Beathard performs well Friday and stays at Iowa, he would at minimum be a contributing backup in 2015 and the odds-on starter as a senior in 2016.
It's worth a reminder that after the regular season concluded, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta gave his support for head coach Kirk Ferentz to return for a 17th season. But in that same conversation, he said "7-5 isn't acceptable" for the Iowa program.
An unstable situation at the most important position in football would make exceeding 7-5 more tenuous.
And that's why Friday is so important.
How will the QB rotation work? Ferentz said Rudock will get the start, as he has for 24 of Iowa's past 25 games. Beathard is scheduled to play in the first quarter and second quarter. "Then we'll sit down at halftime and decide if we want to continue to do what we're doing, or if we're going to let one take the second half and go," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said.
Rudock offers more accuracy (60.8 percent in 683 career attempts to Beathard's 50 percent in 96 attempts), while Beathard offers more big-play potential (14.1 yards per completion to Rudock's 11.5).
"It seems like (Beathard) is really excited for the challenge," receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. "He wants to take advantage of the opportunity that he's been given."
The competition has been healthy and good, Hawkeye coaches and players have said all week in Jacksonville.
"They're both smart guys who can get us into the right plays every time," running back Mark Weisman said.
The Iowa running back is preparing for his final game as a Hawkeye.
Ferentz has reiterated this week he's glad to have two "really good" quarterbacks. The question to be determined is if that'll still be the case when Iowa hosts Illinois State to open the 2015 season.
Although quarterbacks certainly will play a role in Iowa's fate, they aren't the only spotlight storylines Hawkeye fans should watch Friday at EverBank Field. Here are four more:
Tennessee has raved about Iowa's offensive line, but the key to Hawkeye victory could be on the other side of the ball. The Volunteers have allowed 42 sacks this season behind what is viewed as their biggest weakness, the offensive line.
Iowa, meanwhile, ranks 18th nationally in total defense. and a big reason includes senior defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat.
"We just have be prepared mentally and physically and go out there and focus, and be ready to take on their blocks," Trinca-Pasat said. "They're going to give us their best shot."
Martin-Manley needs three catches to break Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' school record of 173 career receptions. The 6-foot, 205-pound senior had six catches in the regular-season finale against Nebraska.
"Leaving your mark wherever you go, that's really all you have at the end of the day," said Martin-Manley, who has 171 catches (49 this season) for 1,776 yards in his four-year career.
If it's a really good day for an Iowa offense that averaged 31.2 points per game in Big Ten Conference play (its most since 2002), Weisman could sniff the school record for rushing touchdowns. He had 30 in his career, three behind the school mark co-held by Tavian Banks and Sedrick Shaw.
Iowa played three true freshmen this year. Tennessee played 23.
One of the key factors in Tennessee's inexperience — aside from zero bowl games played — is that many of the guys in orange haven't had as much time in coach Butch Jones' strength and conditioning program.
Look for Iowa to try to deliver hard hits against a Tennessee team with more pure talent.
"I think (Iowa) will be one of the biggest challenges that we will have as an entire football team all year," Jones said, "just because of the high level of physicality."
Tommy Gaul prepares for final game against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Friday.
Ferentz has emphasized turnover margin throughout his 16 years at Iowa. This fall wasn't one of his best years in that department.
"Overall, that's one thing I really believe in," Ferentz said. "If you do a good job of protecting the football and do a good job with takeaways it's going to help your chance to win. This year, it certainly factored into a lot of our losses."
Iowa was minus-5 in turnovers this season (ranking in the bottom 25 percent nationally), including four in the first half in a frustrating season-finale loss to Nebraska.
Beating Tennessee and finishing with that eighth win just might come down to protecting the football. And that circles back to the issue that every Hawkeye fan will watch today: The quarterbacks.
Who: Iowa (7-5) vs. Tennessee (6-6)
Time, TV: 2:20 p.m. Friday, ESPN
Where: EverBank Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.
The line: Tennessee is favored by 3.5.
Tickets: Approximately 60,000 have been sold
Des Moines Register Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown and WHO-TV's Michael Admire discuss what's to come on Jan. 2 between Iowa and Tennessee at the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.