Hawkeyes Hope to Solidify Elite Status, Face Gators In Outback Bowl

Dec 31, 2003

Tampa, Fla. (AP) – A second consecutive strong season proved Iowa was not a one-year wonder.

Beating a national power in a January bowl game would only reinforce that.

The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes (9-3) hope to record their first win in a January bowl game in 44 years when they face No. 17 Florida (8-4) in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

Iowa has shown steady improvement in each season under coach Kirk Ferentz. After losing 10 games in 1999, the Hawkeyes improved to 3-9 in 2000, 7-5 in 2001 and a school-record 11 wins last season, including a share of the Big Ten title and a BCS berth in the Orange Bowl.

After the Hawkeyes lost quarterback Brad Banks – the Heisman runner-up – and four offensive linemen to the NFL last season, many doubted whether Ferentz would be able to keep Iowa among the nation’s top teams. Ferentz silenced his critics with a 9-3 season that includes wins over ranked teams Miami of Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.

“A lot of teams come in and do it one year and then fall off the charts,” Iowa kicker Nate Kaeding said. “Illinois won the Big Ten two years ago and now they’re down to one win. Coach Ferentz didn’t come in here to have one winning season. He wanted to build it up to where it was in the ’80s under (Hayden) Fry. You’ve got to do it year in and year out. That’s what counts.”

A victory Thursday would give Iowa back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history and would end 44 years of futility in January bowl games. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 in January since beating California 38-12 in the 1959 Rose Bowl.

Ferentz’s name is among those being mentioned as candidates for one of the many head coaching vacancies in the NFL. Ferentz interviewed for the head coaching job of the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.

“I’m happy where I am,” Ferentz said. “I’m not going anywhere. Hopefully.”

While Ferentz had to replace a legend at Iowa in Fry, Florida’s Ron Zook faced many of the same challenges at Florida when he succeeded Steve Spurrier in 2002. Zook has endured criticism almost from day one, with fans convinced that he would never be able to return the Gators to national title contention.

His first season ended with a 38-30 loss to Michigan in the Outback Bowl and Florida fell from The AP top 25 preseason poll, the first time that had happened since Spurrier’s first year in 1990.

A 3-3 start this season did little to silence Zook’s critics, but the Gators rallied to win five of their final six games, including victories over LSU and Georgia.

“He’s definitely won over a lot of fans the last six weeks of the season,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “A win Thursday would definitely cap off a great comeback for him and the team.”

The strong finish helped get Florida into a January bowl game for the 11th consecutive season.

The Gators are one of just two teams, joining Florida State, to play in January bowls each of the last 10 years. Zook is just the third coach in Southeastern Conference history to lead his team to a January bowl game in each of his first two seasons.

This Outback Bowl figures to match contrasting styles, with Florida’s speed and athleticism facing Iowa’s defense and execution.

Iowa’s defense has fared well this season against some of the nation’s top quarterbacks, and will need a strong performance Thursday against Florida’s Chris Leak, who threw for 2,167 yards and 14 touchdowns as the SEC freshman of the year.

“We all knew he could throw the ball, and very accurately,” Ferentz said. “But I think the thing that is most impressive about him is he’s extremely poised, extremely decisive. You watch Leak on tape and the guy looks unfazed by any thing they throw at him. He is really poised beyond his years.”

Florida beat Iowa 14-6 in the 1983 Gator Bowl in the only meeting between the teams.