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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says he's expecting to see a "salty" Mississippi State defense in the Outback Bowl Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Forget the fatigue. Embrace the matchup.

Thanks to an Outback Bowl committee that loves Iowa, the 2018 Hawkeyes are getting a chance to play on the New Year’s Day stage against the stingiest scoring defense in the country.

It’ll be 8-4 Iowa against 8-4, 18th-ranked Mississippi State at 11 a.m. on Jan. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

“A huge opportunity for us to kind of show who we are,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said Sunday night, a few hours after learning of the matchup. “Really just excited to play a team like that; you always talk about playing great competition to see how good you are.”

Although portions of Iowa’s fan base openly pined for a return to the Holiday Bowl, the sixth round of the Outback under Kirk Ferentz presents the Hawkeyes with another opportunity at that signature win that proved elusive in 2018.

Because Mississippi State, on paper and on film, is an opponent with some nasty teeth.

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Consider this: The Bulldogs haven’t allowed a touchdown in their past 2½ games — dating to a second-quarter touchdown scored by top-ranked Alabama way back on Nov. 10.

Among 130 FBS teams, only Clemson allows fewer than Mississippi State’s 4.14 yards per play. The Bulldogs rank third in total defense, and first in scoring defense at 12.0 points a game.

They enter this game on a 4-1 stretch, having allowed just 49 points in five games — half of which came in a 24-0 loss to the vaunted Crimson Tide.

The total yardage for those five opponents by game — 232 (by Texas A&M), 238 (Louisiana Tech), 305 (Alabama), 219 (Arkansas) and 189 (Ole Miss).

Like usual, when Iowa heads to Tampa, it’ll be challenged by an imposing Southeastern Conference defense.

“Anytime we've played there, we've played a really good opponent,” Ferentz said Sunday night, “and this will be another one of those matchups.”

It’s been tough sledding in Iowa’s last two trips to the Outback, which is maybe why some fans bristled at the return trip.

Iowa has scored 17 points combined in its past two Outbacks, and here are the three scoring drives from those games:

  • Three plays, one yard, touchdown (after a long John Lowdermilk interception return).
  • Two plays, four yards, touchdown (after a long Jordan Cotton kickoff return).
  • Five plays, nine yards, field goal (after a Desmond King interception).

That's it.

So, yeah — this is an opportunity to change the idea that Iowa can't hang with the SEC.

The Hawkeyes struggled to move the ball in both a 21-14 loss to LSU after the 2013 season and in a 30-3 loss to Florida after the 2016 season.

Iowa’s combined passing numbers in those games: 20-for-54 for 212 yards with five interceptions.

Gross.

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Last year, the Hawkeyes needed a less-imposing matchup to put to rest that five-game bowl losing streak. And they did, by beating Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.

This year, the Hawkeyes needed more of a marquee opponent.

“You want to go to a bowl game and be challenged,” said Iowa center Keegan Render, who will get his wish.

In fact, he’ll be centering an offensive line that will face the best defensive front it’s seen all year. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and pass rusher Montez Sweat are two of the Mississippi State names you’ll be hearing over the next month.

That bumbling loss to Florida in 2016 served as the final game of Greg Davis’ five-year run as Iowa’s offensive coordinator.

This game will serve as an excellent barometer of how far this Hawkeyes offense under Brian Ferentz has come along. (Of course, it won’t have all-Big Ten tight end Noah Fant — who is skipping the game to pursue his pro career. T.J. Hockenson, Iowa’s other tight end, is playing.)

Can the 2018 Hawkeyes do what the 2013 and 2016 teams couldn’t? Iowa finished 8-5 in each of those seasons with Outback losses.

Kirk Ferentz has reminded the team behind closed doors that it’s a pretty exclusive list of Hawkeye teams that have won nine or more games. Only six of Ferentz’s previous 19 teams have gotten to nine. 

And the head coach even referenced something that he usually doesn’t: the national rankings.

He knows that if Iowa can beat Mississippi State, it’ll likely end in the final top 25.

“That would be … a little cherry on top,” Ferentz said, “to what's already been a pretty good season.”

And it should be noted: Iowa has a pretty good defense, too. 

The Hawkeyes rank ninth in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and ninth in yards allowed per play (4.55).

In a season of lost opportunity so far, Iowa gets one more to prove itself.

"When you look back on the year, that’s how we want to be remembered — playing our best our best football at the end," defensive end Parker Hesse said. "And this is a great opportunity to do it."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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