As usual, the Outback Bowl will be the first bowl game of the new year. This year’s game features the no. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs of the SEC and the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten. Kickoff is scheduled for noon EST on Tuesday, January 1, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Oddsmakers list the Bulldogs as 6.5-point favorites over Iowa. The over/under for the game is set at 44.5 points. Click here to check out all of this year’s bowl game odds.
Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has become the definition of consistent. This will be the 16th time the Hawkeyes play in a bowl game in the last 18 years, albeit with a 7-8 record in those games. This will also be the sixth time Ferentz leads the Hawkeyes into the Outback Bowl, doing so as recently as two years ago.
Of course, Iowa will also be a little disappointed with the way their season has turned out. The Big Ten West was wide open this season, but the Hawkeyes weren’t able to take advantage. A string of three straight losses by a combined 12 points late in the season sunk any hope Iowa had of reaching the Big Ten title game despite a respectable 8-4 record.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, matched that record while playing in the far more competitive SEC West. Considering it was a bit of a transition year for the Bulldogs under new coach Joe Moorhead, MSU should be pleased with how their season panned out. With Moorhead taking over for Dan Mullen, there was almost no drop-off from last season.
After some mid-season struggles against the heart of their schedule, the Bulldogs won four of their last five games. MSU’s only loss during that span came against Alabama. They are now in a bowl game for the ninth straight year, going 6-2 in those games, including wins in each of the last three seasons.
Like most people, I tend to favor SEC teams when they face Big Ten teams, and this game is no exception. While I like Iowa as a team, I think Mississippi State has too much size and athleticism, especially at the line of scrimmage. I don’t think the Hawkeyes have enough playmakers to overcome that, which makes me comfortable leaning toward Mississippi State to cover.
Iowa faces their biggest challenge on the offensive side of the ball. Statistically, the Bulldogs were the best defense in the country, giving up just 12 points per game. With eight bowl teams on their schedule, that number is no fluke. Mississippi State gave up no more than 28 points in a game this year. They also held a number of teams to their season-low in scoring, including Alabama.
While Iowa scored 35 points per game this season, that number has to be taken with a grain of salt. They faced a modest schedule and racked up a lot of points against some of their weaker opponents to skew the stats. To be fair, they did a nice job of staying balanced between the run and pass, but they only had a modest rushing attack, gaining just 162 yards per game. The Bulldogs will have the best front-7, by far, the Hawkeyes have faced this season, so I can see the Iowa running game being held in check.
I’m also unsure if quarterback Nate Stanley can carry the Iowa offense against an elite defense. His numbers suffered considerably against some of the better defensive teams Iowa played. I have serious doubts about him facing a defense on MSU’s level, especially if the Hawkeyes can’t establish a viable rushing attack. It also doesn’t help that second-leading receiver Noah Fant has elected not to play in the bowl game.
Of course, in order to cover the spread comfortably, the Bulldogs will need to get something out of their offense. That hasn’t been a given this season. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald completed just 53% of his passes this year while throwing for just 1,615 yards in 11 games. The Iowa defense certainly won’t make things easy for him. The Hawkeyes allowed 16 points or less in seven games this season, including two shutouts. I expect the Iowa defense to provide plenty of resistance against Fitzgerald and the MSU offense.
However, the Bulldogs do have a formidable rushing attack. Despite unimpressive passing numbers, Fitzgerald rushed for over 1,000 yards this year. The running back tandem of Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams also helped the Bulldogs average over five yards per carry on the season. Even with the Iowa defense only giving up 3.1 yards per carry on the ground, I expect the Mississippi State offense to assert themselves at the line of scrimmage and find some success running the ball. That should make it a little easier for Fitzgerald to create a few big plays in the passing game.
To be frank, this figures to be one of the lowest scoring games this bowl season. I think both teams will struggle to find the end zone. But the Mississippi State defense could be close to impenetrable for the Iowa offense. I also think the Bulldogs can create just enough offensively to win by a touchdown and cover the spread.