What Iowa football already knows about Kentucky, and what it needs to learn

Shortly after Iowa football accepted its bid to the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl, head coach Kirk Ferentz and players met with media members via Zoom to discuss their matchup. Among the initial questions asked was: "What do you know about Kentucky?"

Admittedly, not much. 

"I remember watching a few games, if we're waiting in the hotel, watching some clips of them," center Tyler Linderbaum said. "Obviously, I haven't watched enough to tell you about their whole scheme and whatnot. Obviously, they're in the SEC. I think they maybe finished second behind Georgia in their (division), which is pretty impressive." 

The randomness of bowl matchups is a highlight of each college football season. Often it's a style clash between two teams who truly don't know much at all about each other. Maybe they've watched some games on TV. But certainly no film breakdowns.

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However, Kentucky has a few familiar faces that the Hawkeyes know well. 

It starts at the top with Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops. That last name is synonymous with Iowa football. Mark, along with brothers Bob and Mike, played football at Iowa during the 1980s. Mark played defensive back from 1986-88 and also coached in Iowa City from 1990-91. 

Mark Stoops' time at Iowa overlapped with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, who coached offensive line until from 1981-89. Both coaches have teams of similar identities. 

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Kentucky's football program has consistently grown each year under Stoops' stability. The Wildcats have developed a reputation as one of the most physical teams in the SEC, modeling their offense around a strong running game coupled with good defensive play. They're also a developmental program, bringing in lower-ranked recruits as they compete with some of college football's biggest brands in the South. 

Under Stoops, they've had six consecutive winning seasons and three straight bowl wins, and a Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa would give them a 10-win season. 

"Looking from afar, my sense is he started out by building a great foundation and wasn't trying to do a quick fix," Ferentz said of Stoops. "I personally think that's the way to go about it. You're trying to build something that's going to last. It seems like and appears from a distance he's had great support from the administration." 

On the field, two of the biggest reasons for Kentucky's success this year are Big Ten transfers: quarterback Will Levis (Penn State) and Wan'Dale Robinson (Nebraska). 

Iowa's coaching staff knows Levis well. The Hawkeyes were his first collegiate offer out of high school before he later committed to Penn State. Last season, Levis completed 13 of 16 passes and ran it 15 times against Iowa in a 41-21 loss. 

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Iowa's defense will have their hands full with Kentucky's offense but have familiarity with their two top players: quarterback Will Levis and wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson.

Levis' dual-threat and vertical passing abilities have given a new dynamic to Kentucky's offense that it hasn't had in recent years. And that's paired with the explosive Robinson. 

The former Cornhusker has twice as many receptions (94) as the next leading receiver on the team. In two career games against Iowa, he has nine catches for 75 yards and nine rushes for 56 yards. 

"He was a tough guy. They used him in the run game a lot (at Nebraska)," defensive back Dane Belton said. "Little scheme plays and things like that. We'll have to be ready for that. (Levis) commands the offense well. He can toss the ball around a little bit. He runs and has an extra blocker. We'll have to be physical, like we pride ourselves on, and just go from there." 

Could Iowa go back to concepts that worked against those two players in the past? Belton hinted as much, but also noted that they're in a new scheme this year. 

Iowa will have plenty of time to get familiar with Kentucky before Jan. 1. This week, the team is focused on recovery in all phases — physically, mentally and emotionally — after a long season and a disappointing Big Ten title game loss to Michigan

When the players return to the field, they understand the challenge ahead of them. 

"We're going to have to be ready to go," Linderbaum said. "It's going to be a great team, great competition, and we're going to be excited for the opportunity." 

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.