University of Florida

Gators heading to Outback Bowl

Florida quarterback Austin Appleby (12) passes in the first half an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Florida won 16-10.
Florida quarterback Austin Appleby (12) passes in the first half an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. Florida won 16-10. AP

It turns out the Florida Gators will be playing their bowl game close to home.

Following its 54-16 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, UF was selected on Sunday to compete against Iowa in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, a two-hour drive south of Gainesville.

The game is set for Jan. 2 with a 1 p.m. kickoff from Raymond James Stadium -- the same stadium that will host the college football national championship a week later.

It will be a rematch of the 2006 edition of the bowl game, in which the Gators defeated the Hawkeyes 31-24 despite a fourth-quarter rally attempt from Iowa. The two teams accounted for 857 yards of offense.

This year’s contest might not have as many flares, though.

Florida and Iowa boast two of the nation’s bottom-15 offenses (Florida 115th in total offense, Iowa 120th) and top-25 defenses (Florida sixth, Iowa 24th).

The Hawkeyes are 8-4 this season and riding a three-game win streak -- highlighted by a 14-13 win over Michigan.

UF had an outside chance at the Sugar Bowl heading into Saturday’s conference title game against Alabama.

But following the loss -- one in which the Gators were shut out in the second half and allowed the sixth most points in a single game in program history -- Florida dropped two spots to No. 17 in the final College Football Playoff poll. That’s three spots below No. 14 Auburn, which will instead represent the SEC in the Sugar Bowl against Big 12 champion Oklahoma.

Regardless of which game they were selected in though, UF coach Jim McElwain said after the SEC Championship Game that his team needs to compete and end the season on a high note.

“We've got to go play hard and put a plan together and win,” McElwain said. “The guys have got to go compete, not be afraid.”

McElwain doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s bowl game.

The Gators fell 41-7 to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, a loss that closed McElwain’s first year as UF’s head coach on three-game losing skid and sent UF into the offseason with more questions than the team has been able to answer.

McElwain is hoping his second year doesn’t end the same as his first.

“I was really disappointed, obviously, in the effort last year, but this is a different team,” McElwain said. “We've got some guys that are in it for a lot more than just themselves.”

That was evident after the loss Saturday, as a dejected Florida team walked off the Georgia Dome floor and into the locker room as confetti fell and Alabama hoisted its third straight conference title and fourth in five years.

UF quarterback Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue in his first and final year with the Gators, walked up to his teammates after the game and thanked them for their contributions all season.

“I love them,” Appleby said. “They fought hard and I’m proud of them.”

It was a tough loss in the Georgia Dome. After taking an early lead and remaining competitive in the first half, Florida’s offense flatlined on its final three drives while Alabama picked up the pace. In that final span, the Crimson Tide outgained the Gators 210-7.

“Best team we’ve played this year,” UF junior cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “It hurts. It just hurts.”

The lost stung, but UF looks to shake that off before the season ends.

“We’ve got one more,” Appleby said. “... We’re going to go get that one.”