Iowa football embracing Citrus Bowl opportunity, chance for historic finish

Banners hang inside Iowa football's practice facility for every bowl game attended. Every game won has a special distinction: "Champion" under the game's name and year.

One banner that's blank of the distinction is significant: the 2020 Music City Bowl. The Hawkeyes didn't lose that contest but didn't win, either. The game against Missouri was canceled, one of many casualties of the COVID-laden 2020 season. That fact wasn't lost on the Hawkeyes when this year's bowl selections were made Saturday. 

The Hawkeyes will play in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl against Kentucky on January 1. Their marks were set higher — a win in the Big Ten Championship game would've sent them to the Rose Bowl. But on Sunday head coach Kirk Ferentz and players expressed their eagerness to put Saturday's 42-3 loss behind them and look ahead to a New Year's Day game. 

"To play in a bowl like the Citrus is such a great reward for our players," Ferentz said. "It's been almost 20 years since I've been there, but I can just tell you from that experience that it was first-class. Really happy for them to get this opportunity." 

Iowa will play Kentucky in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl on January 1. Iowa opened as a one-point underdog.

Ferentz's history with this bowl, formerly known as the Capital One Bowl, is well documented. His one and only trip produced an all-time great highlight: the Drew Tate-to-Warren Holloway Hail Mary touchdown pass. For players such as safety Dane Belton, a game in Orlando is meaningful as well. 

Belton is a native of Tampa, which is less than 90 miles from Orlando.

"It's a great opportunity especially being so far away from home in Iowa," Belton said. "I've definitely been getting hit up for tickets. My mom called me (Sunday) and told me a lot of people want to come so be prepared for that." 

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Belton and the rest of Iowa's team wants to close out the 2021 year on a high note. And in some ways, it feels like rewinding to the beginning of the season. 

Center Tyler Linderbaum likened bowl season to fall camp. There are 15 practices leading up to the game. That's a lot of time to prepare for Kentucky but also for development-focused practices, something that's not a luxury throughout the season. It's a time when every player, from veterans to scout-team players, can take a big step. 

Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum (65) views the 15 bowl practices as an opportunity for the team to improve internally while preparing for an opponent, similar to fall camp.

There's also a major program milestone to achieve. This year's team became the 10th in school history to win 10 games. A win against Kentucky would make the 2021 Hawkeyes the fourth team in school history with 11 wins. There's also added motivation considering their ugly loss to Michigan. 

Their 24-hour rule is still in effect, but unlike their regular-season losses, there's not a game immediately the following week. The longer wait and the anticipation of the final game have created a sense of urgency to finish the season strong. 

"It's going to mean a lot but it's not going to be easy for sure," Linderbaum said. "11-3 sounds a lot better than 10-4 so that's going to be our goal. It doesn't happen often around here, 11 wins and our team's been through a lot this year. It would mean a lot and we're going to have to prepare hard." 

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Bowl games often come down to which team wants it more. Kentucky likely will be motivated, riding a three-game winning streak and seeking a 10-win finish. Iowa doesn't appear to be short of any motivation to bounce back after the ugly performance against Michigan. 

That has been the mark of the team this year, Ferentz said he isn't concerned about the team not wanting to show up and play. 

"Obviously (Saturday) was a disappointing night for us," Ferentz said. "But the good news is right now we'll put a good plan together and more importantly we have a group that's proven how resilient they are. They've gotten back off the turf already this year and I have full confidence they'll do it again." 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.