Leistikow: Iowa's 2016 season awaits its final verdict

Chad Leistikow

TAMPA, Fla. — Back in the summer, the Iowa football team’s Leadership Group — comprised of more than a dozen veteran players — established three big goals for the upcoming season.

One: Win all four rivalry trophy games.

Two: Return to the Big Ten Conference championship game.

Three: Win a bowl game.

What kind of game plan will Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis deploy in Monday's Outback Bowl? “We’re going to have some fun this game,” tight end George Kittle said.

The first two ended up almost and not quite — a 17-9 home loss to Wisconsin being the separating difference for both.

The third is still on the table.

The 8-4 Hawkeyes face 8-4 Florida in Monday’s Noon CT Outback Bowl here at Raymond James Stadium, with a chance to — for the first time in six years — end the season with a win.

The outcome means a lot to not only the program, which last won a postseason game in the 2010 Insight Bowl, but to those who will put on a Hawkeye helmet for the last time.

“Our senior class hasn’t won a bowl game here,” said all-American cornerback Desmond King, who could have turned pro last spring but opted for one more run with his Hawkeye brothers. “That’s something we want to change.”

There’s a big difference in finishing 9-4 vs. 8-5.

A win, and the season will be viewed largely as a success.

A loss, and it’ll be a story about what could have been.

“We want to finish the right way,” junior linebacker Ben Niemann said. “We want to send the seniors out on a high note.”

Those seniors, who have experienced bowl torment the past three years, seem relaxed ... and even confident.

George Kittle smiled this week as he thought about the game plan Iowa’s coaches have installed to defeat Florida.

Of course, the senior tight end wouldn’t publicly divulge the strategy of college football’s 120th-ranked offense against the Gators’ sixth-ranked defense.

But he did dangle a “stay tuned” kind of tease.

“We’re going to have some fun this game,” Kittle said, then repeated himself. “We’re going to have some fun. I’ll let you see it on Monday.”

On the surface, the Hawkeyes' approach would hardly seem to be a state secret.

Iowa has one of the country’s worst passing games; Florida has two of the nation’s best cornerbacks in Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson.

Iowa has an offensive line that won a national award and two really good running backs in LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley; Florida’s three best linebackers aren’t playing because of injuries.

It seems obvious to everyone what Iowa’s offense should and will do.

Florida interim defensive coordinator Randy Shannon’s expectation?

That Iowa will “run the ball, run the ball, then (a) play-action pass deep ball.”

The key thing to watch is how many times “third down” is displayed during the ABC broadcast when Iowa has the ball.

While unrealistic to think the Hawkeyes will pick a running play every time (“Obviously, we’re going to pass the ball,” receiver Riley McCarron said), they’ll want to play to their strengths — and avoid third-down passing situations.

“Their secondary, that’s where their strength is,” Daniels said. “We know we’re going to have to run the football to be successful. We’re going to have to stay on schedule.”

But Kittle’s words are a reminder that, with this 2016 team, to expect the unexpected.

The season began with more than 80 percent of polled media members picking Iowa to return to the Big Ten title game.

But after the high of a 42-3 rout of rival Iowa State and an ascent into the nation’s top 10, adversity struck.

North Dakota State, a lower-division program, handed Iowa the first of four losses in a stretch from mid-September to early November.

But after hitting rock bottom with a 41-14 loss at Penn State, the Hawkeyes responded seven nights later with a shocking upset against then-No. 3 Michigan, followed by two more emphatic wins (against Illinois and then-No. 15 Nebraska) to punch their tickets to Tampa.

“The last three weeks we handled every circumstance pretty well,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and now we've got another challenge on our hands. And this one is equally big to a couple of the ones that we had in November.”

Overall, it’s been a good season of Iowa football. But the season isn't over yet.

Do the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes end up a top-20 national team? Or out of the polls altogether and 0-for-3 on the preseason goal checklist?

We'll find out Monday.

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.