With Florida bowl bid comes clean slate (even at QB) for Iowa

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – By every barometer, Iowa's 7-5 football season failed to meet expectations. Even the school's athletic director said so this week.

The TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2 offers the Hawkeyes a clean slate, a chance to match last year's 8-5 record.

Iowa learned Sunday it will meet 6-6 Tennessee at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. — home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars — in a 2:20 p.m. CT game televised by ESPN.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and athletic director Gary Barta met the news media at the sprawling, new Iowa football facility to discuss the bowl invitation. The theme of the night: Overcoming disappointment.

"One great thing about sports, you get another opportunity to line up and play and go back to work and focus on what's in front of you," said Ferentz, who landed his 12th bowl bid (and eighth in Florida) in his 16 seasons at Iowa. "That's the attitude I've seen our team take already. We've only had two workouts, but so far (they've) been good."

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The fresh-slate theme extends to every position battle, Ferentz said — including quarterback. Without using their names, Ferentz wouldn't rule out starting sophomore C.J. Beathard (a native Tennessean) over junior Jake Rudock.

Rudock was off-and-on in compiling a 6-5 record as a starter. Beathard became a fan favorite by rallying Iowa past Pittsburgh after Rudock was hurt, then won his only start at Purdue the following week.

"We sit here at 7-5 right now, so I can't imagine that we won't evaluate," Ferentz said. "I can't imagine there's not too much that's not open for grabs. It's been that way all season. It'll be that way over the next month. Everybody's got to earn their spot, their position, their playing time.

"We're a 7-5 football team. We're looking to get better. That leaves everything up for discussion. Most importantly, open to competition."

It's been 31 years since the Hawkeyes played in Jacksonville. They lost 14-6 to Florida in the damp, cold 1983 Gator Bowl.

In Tennessee, Iowa gets a beatable opponent whose best win this season came against 6-6 South Carolina in overtime. The young Volunteers became one of 12 bowl-eligible Southeastern Conference teams by beating Vanderbilt 24-17 in the season finale. They are viewed as a program on the upswing with second-year coach Butch Jones and are back to their first bowl since 2010.

"My first thought ... the SEC is considered king," Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said. "I'm happy to get to the game. I'm just anxious to get on the field and prepare."

Iowa doesn't have a signature win, either. With one of the softest schedules in years and many key returners off last year's 8-5 team that lost 21-14 to LSU in the Outback Bowl, Iowa was considered a title contender in the Big Ten Conference's West Division.

Even with tough-to-swallow losses — at home to 2-10 Iowa State and by 37 at Minnesota — the Hawkeyes still had a chance to win the Big Ten West with home games against Wisconsin and Nebraska to close the season. But Iowa got too far behind Wisconsin in a 26-24 loss, then six days later frittered away a 17-point third-quarter lead to lose in overtime to Nebraska, 37-34.

"We're all extremely disappointed we didn't win either of those games, or both of them," Ferentz said. "But you can't move backwards. So if there's any feeling or talk of us not being affected, that's ridiculous. Anybody who has ever competed, I think would understand we're disappointed. We want to do better. That's going to be our goal. Now, we have three-plus weeks to get better as a football team."

Three of Iowa's senior captains — Alston, Brandon Scherff and Louis Trinca-Pasat — each spoke about redemption Sunday, and having one more shot as Hawkeyes.

"We didn't complete some of the goals we had in mind," said Scherff, an Outland Trophy finalist and recently named Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. "But winning a bowl game ... was one of our goals. So we've still got one of those goals we can reach."