Big Ten bowl preview: Hawkeyes key in Big Ten-SEC battle

Big Ten bowl preview: Hawkeyes key in Big Ten-SEC battle
December 31, 2013, 10:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

Every bowl season, the same debate gets put into action: Big Ten vs. SEC, who's better?

The race for conference supremacy has been little contest in recent years, with the SEC dominating in every imaginable fashion, most importantly that streak of seven straight national-championship victories. But even beyond that, the SEC entered this year with a 59.3-percent postseason winning percentage in the BCS era (73-50, 17-8 in BCS games). Meanwhile, the Big Ten has won just 44.3 percent of its bowl games since 1998 (47-59, 12-14 in BCS games).

Well, because it's January, the Big Ten and SEC face off again, this time in three separate bowl games on New Year's Day: the Gator Bowl pits Nebraska against Georgia, the Capital One Bowl pits Wisconsin against South Carolina and the Outback Bowl pits Iowa against LSU.

It's that Iowa-LSU matchup that looks the most disparate on paper. Iowa, while successful this season, flipping its 4-8 record from a year ago into an 8-4 mark this season, doesn't seem to compare with the No. 16 team in the country at first glance.

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The Bayou Bengals are a perennial powerhouse, a team with 67 percent of its losses coming to Georgia and Alabama, a team that boasted one of college football's most explosive offenses. The Tigers ranked 27th in the country with 465.9 yards of total offense per game. Led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger, LSU put up 37 points per game, a scary number for an Iowa team that never allowed that much in a single game all season.

Don't take my word for it. Kirk Ferentz is impressed.

"The rest of the story to me is that they've got a very offensively well-conceived football team, and it starts that they block people up front. They've got big, physical guys up front that allow them to get going, and they've got good skill positions at every player. So to me they've got the kind of balance. If you look at them statistically, they're over 200 throwing it and 200 rushing, so it's a tough team to defend," the Iowa head coach said during a Sunday press conference. "This is certainly going to be our biggest challenge defensively that we're facing."

Iowa's biggest challenge? This is a Hawkeyes team that faced off against Ohio State in Columbus, one that hosted Wisconsin, one that suffered a loss to the Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans.

Though what he said could very well be true, in that battle for conference strength, the Big Ten takes quite the hit when Ferentz ranks LSU ahead of his own conference's three best teams.

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But what's interesting is that the Hawkeyes might have the best chance at grabbing a win for the Big Ten over the SEC this bowl season. Mettenberger is hurt, for starters, and that stat regarding Iowa's low points-allowed totals isn't because of weak competition. It's because of a good Hawkeye defense, one led by a trio of senior linebackers: Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens.

You see, Ferentz doesn't want to hear about conference strength, but at the same time, he acknowledges that the Big Ten isn't about to roll over and let the big, bad SEC steamroll on by. And if he's the one lifting the Outback Bowl trophy on Wednesday, he'll have done quite a bit in helping the Big Ten make a case for supremacy in this year's debate.

"The thing about a bowl game is you're going to be playing an outstanding opponent, and it means you have a good team, too, and a good season. That in itself is enough for anybody that's involved in the bowl game. All that other stuff is just stuff. It's just about the game and the competition, and we've got a chance to go out and compete against a really good football team," Ferentz said. "And both these teams have done that during the course of the year.

"We've both played in tough conferences."

Iowa and No. 16 LSU kick off in the Outback Bowl at 12 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN.