University of Florida coach Jim McElwain knows what is at stake on Monday when his 20th-ranked Gators close out their season against No. 21 Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
It’s not a College Football Playoff matchup — even though the game will be played at the same site as the national championship.
But it is a chance for Florida (No. 17 in College Football Playoff rankings) to end an injury-riddled, roller coaster of a season on a high note.
“It’s a real important thing to do,” running back Jordan Scarlett said. “We have to set a standard for next year.”
The Gators (8-4) enter bowl season in the same predicament as a year ago: SEC East champions on a two-game losing streak.
Florida failed to execute in the Citrus Bowl last year, falling 41-6 to Michigan to close McElwain’s first season at the helm of the Florida football program on a three-game losing streak.
McElwain doesn’t want to enter this offseason the same way.
“Personally, any time you get the opportunity to go compete, I don’t care what it’s in — if you want to go and play some dominos right now, I’m going to try to beat you,” McElwain said. “That’s what it’s all about. … This is an opportunity now that we have to go prove ourselves.”
And that starts by facing an Iowa team that has found its stride late in the season.
After starting 5-4, the Hawkeyes (8-4) went on to upset then-No. 3 Michigan 14-13 before closing out the season with big wins against Illinois (28-0) and Nebraska (40-10).
Iowa’s offense is fueled by its running game.
Running backs LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley have combined for 1,979 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground this season. They have combined for 673 rushing yards and half of Iowa’s 12 touchdowns over the past three games.
“For you to really be successful,” McElwain said, “you can’t allow a team to just pound the ball on you.”
And Florida will have to defend the Iowa run without its three top linebackers. McElwain said Friday that senior Jarrad Davis (ankle), redshirt junior Alex Anzalone (arm) and true freshman David Reese (wrist) will all be out Monday against the Hawkeyes. This means redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and true freshman Vosean Joseph will take the bulk of the linebacker responsibilities. It will be the first career start for Joseph, a former standout at Miami Norland High.
“Obviously, where we’re gonna be a little short on bodies is not a place, against this kind of team, that you wanna be,” McElwain said.
Because of the lack of linebacker depth, junior cornerback Jalen Tabor said it’s going to be up to everyone on the defense to take charge in stopping Iowa’s running backs.
“You’ve just got to keep going body blow after body blow after body blow,” Tabor said. “Somebody’s going to get tired of getting hit, and it’s either going to be the offense or the defense. That’s when you start to see teams roll over.”
Defensively, the Hawkeyes are 25th in average yards allowed (352.8 yards per game) and tied with Florida for ninth in points allowed (17.9). All-American and 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King (53 tackles, two interceptions) leads the secondary, while linebackers Josey Jewell and Bo Bower have combined to rack up 202 tackles.
“They’re not gonna beat themselves,” said UF quarterback Austin Appleby, who played against Iowa three times during his time at Purdue before transferring to Florida. “They’re gonna make us go the long, hard way.”
Monday: No. 17 Florida vs. Iowa
What: Outback Bowl.
Kickoff: 1 p.m.; Raymond James Stadium, Tampa.
TV/radio: ABC; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 3.
Records: Florida 8-4 (6-2 SEC); Iowa 8-4 (6-3 Big Ten).
Series: Florida leads 2-1.
Florida injuries: Questionable — DL Antonneous Clayton (elbow); OL Martez Ivory (ankle); WR C.J. Worton (ankle); RB Mark Herndon (hamstring); DB Nick Washington (ankle); OL Tyler Jordan (ankle); OL Fred Johnson (undisclosed); DB Jeawon Taylor (undisclosed); DL Justus Reed (undisclosed); OL Cameron Dillard (knee); LB Daniel McMillian (shoulder); DB Duke Dawson (ankle). Out — LB David Reese (wrist); DL Jordan Sherit (knee); DB Marcus Maye (arm); WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee); LB Jarrad Davis (ankle); LB Alex Anzalone (arm).
Iowa injuries: Doubtful — CB Manny Rugamba (shoulder). Out — FB Drake Kulick (undisclosed); DB Greg Mabin (ankle); DL Jake Hulett (undisclosed); WR Matt VandeBerg (foot).