Iowa football coaches and players arrived Dec. 26 at the team hotel in Tampa at around 4:40 p.m. local time, in advance of the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl. Hawk Central
Kirk Ferentz may be preaching change (and showing more of it on the field, at least) as he enters his third decade as Iowa football coach.
But cue the cliche. The more things change, the more likely Iowa is going to end up in another Outback Bowl.
At least I feel like that should be a phrase, as the Hawkeyes prepare for another New Year's morning challenge against a ranked Southeastern Conference opponent.
This time, it'll be 18th-ranked Mississippi State on the opposite sideline for the 11 a.m., ESPN-televised matchup. Let's take a look at the projected starters:
Quarterback: No. 4, Nate Stanley (6-foot-4, 242 pounds, junior) — Some long-term perception might be at stake for Stanley here. In the two most recent instances of games away from Kinnick Stadium against upper-crust defensive competition (thinking 2017 Wisconsin and 2018 Penn State, here), Stanley has gone into a shell. Iowa's success likely will hinge on whether Stanley finds it in him to have an above-average day against an (considerably) above-average unit.
Running back: No. 10, Mekhi Sargent (5-10, 210, sophomore) — Sargent has emerged as a runner with purpose from the morass of committee backs. His 294 yards on 43 carries the past two games (6.8-yard average) is encouraging. But Mississippi State's defense is not Illinois' defense, not Nebraska's defense. More on that later.
Fullback: No. 36, Brady Ross (6-0, 245, Jr.) — A sight for sore eyes, considering Ross hasn't played since the Indiana game in mid-October. We all know the importance of the No. 1 fullback's health in an Iowa offense, so Ross' return will be welcomed. The Bulldogs are one heck of a return assignment, though.
Tight end: No. 38, T.J. Hockenson (6-5, 250, Soph.) — If this is to be Hockenson's final Iowa game, then the Mackey Award winner will be out to make a statement against an elite defense. Consider me the most excited I've been all season to see what Hockenson can do. Of course, it's notable that Iowa lists just one tight end spot on the depth, given Noah Fant's amicable early departure from the program.
Split end: No. 12, Brandon Smith (6-3, 219, Soph.) — I've heard several times about Brandon Smith's emergence this season, but the stats don't lie. It hasn't happened. Sorry. Just two games this season with more than three catches, and only one at more than 50 yards. That's neither transcendent nor game-breaking.
Wide receiver: No. 84, Nick Easley (5-11, 205, senior) — Easley's emergence from Division II punter to Iowa's most reliable wide receiver has been a remarkable journey. But to the Smith point, Nick Easley should not be your team's second-leading pass-catcher and yards-gainer (I'm not counting Noah Fant, since he is effectively gone). The modern offensive developments largely remain a mystery for the Hawkeyes ...
Left tackle: No. 77, Alaric Jackson (6-7, 320, Soph.) — ... And yet, Iowa is still averaging 31.5 points per game this season, a top-10 effort in program history and the highest in 16 years. I wouldn't blame you if you've thrown up your hands and stopped trying to figure this unit out.
Left guard: No. 59, Ross Reynolds (6-4, 295, Sr.) — Hoo, boy. Haven't even directly mentioned the Bulldogs' defense yet. Well, Mississippi State held opponents to a single-digit point total seven times in 12 games. And only twice did a foe reach 20.
MORE ON THE BULLDOGS:What you need to know about Mississippi State
Center: No. 69, Keegan Render (6-4, 307, Sr.) — Render is part of a senior class that won 23 Big Ten Conference games in its four years, which is third-most in the now-in-its-third-decade Kirk Ferentz era. Also went undefeated against Michigan and Ohio State. OK, just 2-0. But still.
Right guard: No. 61, Cole Banwart (6-4, 296, Soph.) — Perhaps the most daunting aspect of Mississippi State's defense is that there's no weak point, nowhere to relax. The stats say it all: rushing, 104.3 yards per game allowed (10th in the nation); passing 164.2 ypg (sixth); total 268.4 ypg (third); scoring 12 ppg (first).
Right tackle: No. 74, Tristan Wirfs (6-5, 320, Soph.) — Some good news: The Iowa offensive line finished atop the Big Ten in the ability to prevent sacks, at 13 overall. Some bad news: Mississippi State is 11th in the country at sacking the quarterback. Montez Sweat & Co. will certainly test the mettle of this line.
Left end: No. 98, Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271, Jr.) — I'll try to be less downcast when talking about the defense. The good news is that Nelson has quietly been a force for the Hawkeyes up front this year. A.J. Epenesa (rightfully) gets a lot of the disruptive talk, but this Nelson is tied with the super sophomore with 9.5 sacks, a number that also happens to lead the Big Ten.
Left tackle: No. 90, Sam Brincks (6-5, 275, Sr.) — Iowa's defense is no slouch. A particular strength is the rush game, which is sixth in the country at 102.8 yards allowed per game. Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald isn't afraid to bulldoze ahead on the ground, though. This will be the position grouping matchup that'll likely decide the game.
Right tackle: No. 96, Matt Nelson (6-8, 295, Sr.) — Nelson will end his Iowa career quietly, when considering the talent and stat-gulpers that surround him. But the big guy will wrap with a 20-start streak at his position and an honorable-mention all-Big Ten selection. Not too shabby.
Right end: No. 40, Parker Hesse (6-3, 261, Sr.) — Hesse is third on the team in sacks with four, and the team itself has 34, the group's best mark since 2003 and one that ranks third in the Big Ten behind Penn State and Ohio State.
Iowa fifth-year senior defensive end Parker Hesse also said morale is higher when more guys are playing. The Hawkeyes rotated eight this season. Hawk Central
Outside linebacker: No. 49 Nick Niemann (6-4, 232, Soph.) — Niemann's role is established, for this season, anyway: Tops on the depth chart, not really starting, still finding ways to contribute. Had his best performance since the midseason injury with five tackles in the regular-season finale against Nebraska.
Middle linebacker: No. 48, Jack Hockaday (6-1, 235, Sr.) — Linebacker is going to be a worry point again next year, given Amani Hooker's potential pro status. Hockaday's 56 tackles this year will be missed, too, even though we don't mention his name week-to-week all that much.
Weak-side linebacker: No. 32, Djimon Colbert (6-1, 234, freshman) — Colbert has been a revelation this year, moving into a starting role as a freshman despite being originally considered as a defensive back. But it's growing clearer, too, that his effectiveness has plateaued and that an offseason of development will do him good. Had more than five tackles just once in the final six games of the season.
Left cornerback: No. 8, Matt Hankins (6-1, 185, Soph.) — Hankins has recovered nicely since the midseason depth-chart demotion and brief suspension. The Nebraska game kept him busy, but his 10 tackles was a team high for the day and an individual season-best.
Strong safety: No. 27, Amani Hooker (6-0, 210, Jr.) — The lion's share of the NFL Draft talk has focused on Iowa's tight ends, but the Big Ten defensive back of the year's impending decision might be the most intriguing of the offseason. And leadership-wise, maybe the most influential, too.
Free safety: No. 30, Jake Gervase (6-1, 212, Sr.) — Talk about unsung guys who are going to be missed ... Gervase closed his Kinnick Stadium career doing what he does, which is just tackle everything in sight (10 more on Black Friday). His 83 tackles is the most on the team ... by 24 (Hooker).
Right cornerback: No. 11, Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 199, Jr.) — If there's one player who probably needs to make that leadership leap next year, it'll be the senior-to-be. Despite his own depth-chart demotion, as well, he had three interceptions (including one against Nebraska) among Iowa's 18, a number which tied for the nation's top mark.
Kicker: No. 91, Miguel Recinos (6-1, 193, Sr.) — Recinos booted the game-winning 41-yard field goal against the Cornhuskers to close his Kinnick Stadium chapter. But he missed a 37-yarder that would have provided a fourth-quarter cushion. And in the third, Kirk Ferentz chose another fake field-goal other than a chip-shot kick that would have given the Hawkeyes a three-score lead. All in all, an uneven finale, as far as I'm concerned.
Punter: No. 7, Colten Rastetter (6-1, 213, Jr.) — With nine fewer punts from last year to this, Rastetter's punt average was up about 1.8 yards per boot (to 39.6). Nothing to write home about, in case people are telling you this portion of special teams has improved.
Kickoff returns: No. 6, Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 175, Soph.) — Rightfully named the return specialist of the year in the Big Ten. He leads the conference and is third in the country after averaging 29.3 yards per return during the regular season.
Punt returns: No. 14, Kyle Groeneweg (5-10, 186, Sr.) — Quietly, Groeneweg lead all Big Ten punt returners, too. Any average that creeps above 10 yards per return is acceptable.
MISSISSIPPI STATE PROJECTED STARTERS
Quarterback: No. 7, Nick Fitzgerald (6-5, 230, Sr.)
Running back: No. 8, Kylin Hill (5-11, 215, Soph.)
H receiver: No. 2, Deddrick Thomas (5-9, 190, Jr.)
X receiver: No. 1, Stephen Guidry (6-1, 190, Jr.)
Z receiver: No. 87, Osirus Mitchell (6-5, 210, Soph.)
Tight end: No. 81, Justin Johnson (6-3, 245, Sr.)
Left tackle: No. 55, Greg Eiland (6-8, 335, Soph.)
Left guard: No. 73, Darryl Williams (6-2, 310, Jr.)
Center: No. 74, Elgton Jenkins (6-4, 310 Sr.)
Right guard: No. 61, Deion Calhoun (6-3, 320, Sr.)
Right tackle: No. 51, Stewart Reese (6-5, 240, Soph.)
Defensive end: No. 9, Montez Sweat (6-6, 245, Sr.)
Defensive end: No. 4, Gerri Green (6-4, 255, Sr.)
Defensive tackle: No. 95, Braxton Hoyett (6-3, 310, Sr.)
Nose guard: No. 94, Jeffery Simmons (6-4, 300, Jr.)
Weak-side linebacker: No. 10, Leo Lewis (6-2, 240, Jr.)
Middle linebacker: No. 40, Erroll Thompson (6-1, 250, Soph.)
Strong-side linebacker: No. 6, Willie Gay Jr. (6-2, 235, Soph.)
Star: No. 11, Jaquarius Landrews (6-0, 190, Jr.)
Cornerback: No. 2, Jamal Peters (6-2, 220, Sr.)
Cornerback: No. 3, Cameron Dantzler (6-2, 175, Soph.)
Free safety: No. 41, Mark McLaurin (6-2, 215, Sr.)
Strong safety: No. 38, Johnathan Abram (6-0, 215, Sr.)
Placekicker: No. 47, Jace Christmann (6-0, 200, Soph.)
Kickoffs: No. 48, Scott Goodman (5-10, 200, Fr.)
Punter: No. 42, Tucker Day (6-0, 205, Soph.)
Kickoff returns: No. 2, Deddrick Thomas (5-9, 190, Jr.)
Punt returns: No. 23, Keith Mixon (5-8, 185, Jr.) OR No. 2, Deddrick Thomas (5-9, 190, Jr.)