Leistikow: For Hawkeyes, Outback Bowl means a lot

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — The Iowa football team went through its first bowl-week practice here Tuesday at the University of Tampa.

The Hawkeyes are taking it seriously. To them, Monday’s Outback Bowl vs. Florida is no meaningless exhibition.

And they’re right.

This is a meaningful (note that word) game for the Iowa program, even as debates fester about the modern-day importance of bowl games in the College Football Playoff era.

On his way to the office recently, Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz heard radio chatter while discussing the decisions of three high-profile college players — including Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey — to skip their teams’ bowl games to focus on NFL Draft preparation.

Defensive back Desmond King and his Hawkeye teammates go through warmup drills during their first practice from Tampa on Tuesday.

Skipping a meaningless bowl game, the national radio figure said.

That got Ferentz’s attention.

“I think sometimes maybe people aren't aware of what their word choice can suggest,” he said.

The 18th-year Hawkeye coach went on to tell a story about his long-ago teaching and coaching days at the Worcester (Mass.) Academy, when it felt like the only fans watching were the players’ parents.

His point was, even those games mattered.

If you’re a football player and a competitor, they all matter.

“It's really been no different at any level,” Ferentz said. “If you line up and play, games are important.

“I don't think the (radio) person that said that meant anything by it, but it's one of the fears that I have about the playoff system and the concept of expanding. It's almost as if, if you're not in the playoff system, everything else doesn't count. And I think a lot of people are missing the boat on that one.”

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For the Hawkeyes, it’s easy to find meaning in this game.

In fact, you could make a legitimate case that — given where this Hawkeye program is right now — that this is their most important game of the 2016 season.

Why? Lots of reasons. But here are four:

For the culture

A finishing moment for the era of “Ferentz 3.0” or “New Kirk” — whatever you want to call the in-house reboot after the 2014 season — is missing.

Validation of culture change has been evident in a collective 20-4 record over two regular seasons and contention for conference titles.

But the postseason box remains unchecked.

Iowa got edged a year ago in the Big Ten Conference title game, then shellacked in the Rose Bowl.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard has been a part of a successful senior class that has one glaring negative: An 0-3 record in bowl games.

A win against Florida would go a long way reminding younger players in the program that the year-round disciplinary investments they make — in Chris Doyle’s weight room, on the summer-baked practice fields — have a finishing payoff.

In each of the past five seasons — four times in bowl games — Iowa lost its final game. 

Disappointing finishes can only serve as offseason motivation so often.

For the development

Speaking of young guys, the pre-bowl period is one of their most valuable football resources on the calendar.

In a program centered around development, the bonus practices that stem from a bowl invitation bring special benefits to less-experienced players.

Previously: Hawkeyes pack 1,812 pounds of key cargo on flight to Tampa

In the early stages of bowl preparation, starters and other heavily-used players enter a rest-and-recovery phase. For true freshmen, it’s really their first chance to shine.

“A lot of young guys that have been training all fall long,” said Doyle, Iowa’s 18th-year strength and conditioning coach. “And now it’s their opportunity to get back on the field and get meaningful reps with the coaches; get meaningful reps on film.

“(It’s) really important for our growth and our health as a football program moving forward to have this opportunity.”

Iowa strength coach is highest paid and set to make more

For the seniors

Headed by quarterback C.J. Beathard and all-America cornerback Desmond King, the Hawkeyes’ outgoing senior class is an accomplished group. By going 35-17 from 2013 through 2016, this class has matched the four-year record of the 2008 through 2011 seasons.

That group (which included Mike Daniels and Marvin McNutt) was part of three bowl wins.

This group hasn’t experienced one.

It’s a class low on quantity, high on quality. Beathard has a 21-6 record as a starter; King is the program’s only Jim Thorpe Award winner; Jaleel Johnson grew into a first-team all-Big Ten defensive tackle; George Kittle might be one of Ferentz’s best combination receiving/blocking tight ends; LeShun Daniels Jr. is responsible for Iowa’s first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2011.

For 14 seniors, Monday marks a chance to end their run on a high note.

“I couldn’t imagine skipping a game,” Daniels said. “Having the bowl game being your last game, you want to go out there and be with your teammates and be with your brothers … and help your team to a victory. There’s nothing more satisfying than that, being in the locker room with those guys celebrating.”

For the win

Florida carries a national brand into this game, not to mention the title as reigning Southeastern Conference East Division champion.

Beating the Gators would satisfy a number of narratives for Iowa players, coaches and fans.

The Hawkeyes would stop hearing about a four-game bowl losing streak.

Ferentz would even his bowl record to 7-7 while moving to 4-3 against SEC competition.

Seven of the nine full-time assistant coaches would experience their first bowl win at Iowa (Reese Morgan and Phil Parker being the exceptions).

The program would likely earn its seventh top-20 final ranking under Ferentz (which would net the head coach a $150,000 bonus). Iowa is currently No. 21 by the Associated Press and No. 25 in the Amway Coaches’ Poll.

For Iowa alumni everywhere, a win would mean going to work Tuesday with an extra skip in their New Year's steps.

Add it all up, and there might not be a more meaningful game for everyone involved with 2016 Hawkeye football.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.