The big 2014 Outback Bowl breakdown: LSU vs. Iowa, big plays vs. trenches

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

LSU holds a big-play advantage in the Outback Bowl, but Kirk Ferentz's late-blooming Iowa Hawkeyes could win at the line of scrimmage and snag an upset. New Year's Day, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN.

LSU outgained Iowa (significantly, until the final play) and committed fewer turnovers and penalties. JaMarcus Russell found Skyler Green for two touchdowns in the final nine minutes, Iowa made some clock management mistakes in the final seconds, and it appeared that LSU was going to take the 2005 Capital One Bowl, 25-24.

And then somebody forgot to cover Warren Holloway.

The 2014 Outback Bowl is just the second meeting ever between Iowa and LSU. It features a team from the Bayou that might have expected something a little bit loftier this year and a team from Iowa City that wasn't sure what to expect. It is not what one might call a sexy matchup, but if it finishes anything like the first meeting did, we're in for a treat.

And make no mistake: If you haven't seen much of Iowa this year, the Hawkeyes are pretty solid and improved by quite a bit over the course of the season. LSU holds the overall edge here, but a down-to-the-wire finish isn't out of the question. We can hope, anyway.

How they got here

Iowa's season to date

Iowa waited until nobody was looking, then turned into a pretty good football team. The Hawkeyes lost by three to Northern Illinois and looked wholly unspectacular in wins over Missouri State and Iowa State (combined score: 55-35), but they slowly began to improve. They won at Minnesota (a win that would begin to look more impressive when we realized Minnesota actually wasn't too bad), then lost by 12 and 10 to the eventual Big Ten division champions.

A November 2 loss to Wisconsin dropped Iowa to 5-4, but the Hawkeyes took care of business down the stretch; easy road wins over Purdue and Nebraska sandwiched a come-from-behind win over Michigan at home.

Iowa is likely to finish the 2013 unranked for the fourth straight year after finishing seventh in 2009. But after falling to 4-8 in 2012 -- their worst finish since 2000, Kirk Ferentz's second year in charge -- the Hawkeyes actually got somewhere this fall, doubling last year's win total. A respectable showing against an SEC power, with a pretty young two-deep, could be a signal that Iowa is ready to compete at a high level in the Big Ten next year.

LSU's season to date

LSU returned quite a bit of offensive talent, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger and one of the best receiver duos in the country, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr. The Tigers' offense improved dramatically in 2013, but an inexperienced defense regressed.

An Outback victory would give the Tigers four straight seasons with at least 10 wins for the first time ever.

After early wins over TCU and Auburn (at the time, the former actually seemed more impressive than the latter), LSU fell at Georgia, 44-41. It was only the second time since 1989 that the Tigers had scored 39 or more points in a loss, and though it was an extreme, it defined the season as a whole. LSU couldn't make late stops in losses to Ole Miss and Alabama and finished 9-3 with a defense that ranked just 45th in Def. F/+.

The Tigers also lost Mettenberger to injury in the season finale against Arkansas, though backup Anthony Jennings was able to rally the team to a comeback win.

LSU has come to expect a spot higher on the SEC pecking order than the Outback Bowl, but all things considered, it could have been worse. And an Outback victory would give the Tigers four straight seasons with at least 10 wins for the first time ever.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Iowa 8-4 NR 28 52 17 38
LSU 9-3 16 18 -7 9 45 25
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Iowa Offense 58 54 59 43 91 95 58
LSU Defense 39 26 52 24 40 42 122
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Iowa Offense 47 52 38 16 17 24 28
LSU Defense 47 103 75 85 31 51 54
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
LSU Offense 19 3 25 5 15 9 70
Iowa Defense 8 24 6 25 12 18 9
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
LSU Offense 40 20 26 34 76 107 37
Iowa Defense 9 29 40 23 70 84 65
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Iowa Special Teams 25 56 56 83 12 56
LSU Special Teams 54 4 26 27 118 42

Iowa's biggest advantages:

Ground and pound. Iowa runs the ball more than two-thirds of the time on standard downs and is at least somewhat decent at it. The Hawkeyes aren't incredible in this regard, but Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock combine for almost 30 carries per game with solid efficiency (and nearly no explosiveness). Defending the run has been a relative weakness for LSU, which neither gets into the backfield against the run nor prevents you from creating occasional second-level opportunities. And the Tigers are among the nation's worst when it comes to allowing long, methodical drives.

Iowa's pass rush is mediocre, but the line stands up well to run blocking.

It's difficult to rely on methodical drives -- it requires quite a few third-down conversions, after all -- but if Iowa can avoid three-and-outs (an issue at times) and move the ball reasonably well on the ground, quarterback Jake Rudock will have easier passing opportunities against a still-solid LSU secondary, and the Hawkeyes can both grind out a few points and fare well in the field position battle. Against an LSU offense led by an inexperienced quarterback, there are worse things in the world than pinning your opponent deep, and Iowa could find some field position success from its running game.

Iowa could win the trenches. As mentioned above, an Iowa line anchored by tackles Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten could find success against an LSU defensive line that is passive to an out-of-character degree this year. LSU only managed 60 tackles for loss this season, 36 that weren't sacks. Those are low totals, even with Anthony Johnson making seven stops behind the line.

The advantages should extend to the other side of the ball as well. Iowa's pass rush is mediocre, but the line stands up well to run blocking. The Hawkeyes have made 53 non-sack tackles for loss, including 11 from linebacker Anthony Hitchens, 9.5 from linebacker James Morris, and six from tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat. And while LSU's running game improved late in the year -- 5.9 yards per carry in the last four games after 4.7 in the first eight -- the Tigers still rank just 40th in Adj. Line Yards and 25th in Rushing S&P+. Iowa is ninth and sixth, respectively. If Trinca-Pasat and company hold up against LSU's monstrous (average: 6'5, 315) but inexperienced line, the Hawkeyes could make the Tigers one dimensional. Again, that's not a bad thing against a backup quarterback.

LSU's biggest advantages:

LSU still has Landry and Beckham. We know the Tigers will try to run the ball -- it's in their DNA -- but even if they are falling behind schedule and facing some second-and-8 or third-and-6 situations, they still have one hell of a duo lined up out wide. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. were targeted by nearly 62 percent of LSU's passes in 2013; they caught 72 percent of them at 17.3 yards per catch and averaged a combined 12.5 yards per target. That's ridiculous.

This will be the scariest pass combination Iowa has seen this year.

Even with Anthony Jennings throwing the ball instead of Mettenberger, this will be the scariest pass combination Iowa has seen this year; if the Hawkeyes cannot get pressure on Jennings (and there's no reason to automatically think they will), he'll make them pay, inexperience or no inexperience. And even though Iowa's defense is quite adept at avoiding big plays and forcing you to move methodically, Landry and Beckham will test the Hawkeyes severely in that regard.

There is no margin for error in methodical. Iowa does not produce big plays, and LSU doesn't allow a ton of them anyway. So the Hawkeyes will attempt to convert on third down, move the chains, win the field position battle, force a turnover or two, and win a game low on possessions and moderately low on points. They might get away with that. Lord knows they've done so many times in the Ferentz era.

But that requires precision that the odds don't normally favor. It will require Iowa to not only limit the damage done by Beckham and Landry but also by running backs Jeremy Hill and Terrence Magee, who are explosive in the open field when allowed to get there (and have gotten there more frequently of late).

And it absolutely requires a win in the turnover battle (here's where I mention that Jake Rudock has thrown 12 interceptions). And it might require a big return at some point from Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) or Jordan Cotton (kickoffs).

LSU's ability to break off big chunks of yardage will come in handy in this game, especially if Anthony Jennings brings a mobile (and unscouted) element to the table in Mettenberger's absence. It is why the Tigers have the statistical edge, even if Iowa's path to victory is reasonably realistic.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

It's hard to figure out how people will perceive Iowa's fortunes in the offseason, simply because I'm not sure many have noticed how well the Hawkeyes played late in the season. They played like a top-30 team for the season as a whole, and they return almost everybody in 2014; hell, they'll return a good portion of this year's two-deep in 2015, too. Of the 24 offensive players listed on Iowa's pre-bowl depth chart, 12 are freshmen or sophomores, and only five are seniors. On defense, it's 10 freshmen or sophomores and six seniors.

It would probably take a win over LSU to get people to notice what Iowa could be capable of in 2014, but that win isn't out of the question. And regardless, the Hawkeyes are set up well for a good or better season, even if we had no idea this was coming a few months ago.

Meanwhile, LSU gets a glimpse into the future with this peek at Anthony Jennings. Jennings is a true freshman, and though he could technically lose both Beckham and Landry (both juniors) to the pros, there is not a single senior on the line that will be blocking for him in Tampa, and Jeremy Hill, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will return at running back.

Plus, while we're playing the count-the-seniors game, there are only three seniors to 15 freshmen and sophomores on the defensive depth chart. This was a young, flawed unit, but LSU will almost certainly be ranked in the top 12 to start next season. Kill Iowa, and the Tigers might get into the top eight or so even without the receiving threats.

Summary

F/+ Projection: LSU 31, Iowa 25
Win Probability: LSU 68%

Again, it all comes down to margin for error. Even without Mettenberger, LSU is more likely to make the big plays it needs to win the game. But if the Tigers are a step slow -- if the intangibles (motivation, et al) go in favor of the Hawkeyes -- they are ripe for defeat. (You know what else makes a team seem a step slow? Getting beaten in the trenches.) For one thing, Iowa is a lot better than Arkansas, and the Hogs almost upset LSU the last time the Tigers were on the field.

As good as LSU can look at times, the Tigers can be pretty listless, too, and they'll need to be dialed in here. We probably shouldn't expect another finish like the one we saw the last time these two teams played, but unless Landry, Beckham, or Hill really go off, we could see a tight game well into the second half.

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