If you wake up on New Year’s Day hoping to see a plethora of points, let us temper your expectations for the Outback Bowl now.
Two of the top six defenses in the FBS are set to square off at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, and it’s likely both Mississippi State and Iowa score under 20 points.
The 18th-ranked Bulldogs were expected to shine on offense with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald teaming up with head coach Joe Moorhead, but instead, their defense stole the show on a few occasions.
Iowa used another season of grind-it-out football to reach 8-4 and a New Year’s Day bowl, but its season could have been even better if it didn’t suffer through a three-game losing streak at the end of October and early November.
Outback Bowl 2019
Date: Tuesday, January 1
Time: Noon ET
Live Stream: Watch ESPN or ESPN app
Odds (via OddsShark): Mississippi State -7; Over/Under: 41
Let’s begin the preview full of praise for both defenses by commending the pair of 8-4 teams for holding opponents to single digits on nine occasions.
Mississippi State’s defensive accomplishments become even more impressive when you find out it limited two teams to 10 points to add to the five single-digit totals it forced.
The Bulldogs ended the regular season giving up 12 points per game, which was the best total in the FBS, an impressive achievement given how controlling Alabama and Clemson were on that side of the ball.
First-round prospects Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons headline the Mississippi State defense, and unlike other top college players, they’re both playing in their team’s bowl game.
The sense of family that emanates inside the Mississippi State program was one of the main reasons the defensive linemen chose to participate in the Outback Bowl, as Simmons noted to Tyler Horka of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
“You can feel the energy at practice,” Simmons said. “We’re ready to take the field one more time. Just being able to take the field one more time is going to be the best feeling ever, especially with some of those guys who I know are fixing to go off and pursue their dream.”
In addition to the pair of potential first-round picks, the Bulldogs possess a strong secondary, led by safety Johnathan Abram, who is the program’s top tackler.
With plenty of defensive stars capable of shutting down the Iowa offense, Mississippi State hopes it can open up a lead behind Fitzgerald.
The dual-threat quarterback threw for 1,615 yards and ran for 1,018 yards in his senior season to earn two seasons with over 1,000 yards through the air and on the ground.
Although Fitzgerald is one of the better quarterbacks Iowa faces this season, the Hawkeyes can halt his progress in both facets of the game.
The Hawkeyes boast the seventh-best rushing defense in the FBS and are one of nine programs to concede fewer than 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Kirk Ferentz’s team is also impressive defending the pass, as it tied for first in the FBS with 18 interceptions alongside Boston College, Maryland and Utah State.
Defensive backs Amani Hooker and Geno Stone lead the Hawkeyes with four interceptions each, while Jake Gervase and Michael Ojemudia contributed three picks.
Because Iowa poses a problem to opposing quarterbacks, Fitzgerald should try to establish his ground presence first before trying to beat the Hawkeyes secondary.
Iowa could face the same trouble getting its offense going, as tight end Noah Fant is sitting out the Outback Bowl to focus on the NFL draft.
With Fant out, quarterback Nate Stanley only has one of his reliable tight ends to target, and that’s if Mississippi State allows T.J. Hockenson to get open.
Stanley achieved more success in the passing game than Fitzgerald, as he totaled 2,638 passing yards, but he needs one of his wide receivers to step up in the absence of Fant.
If Iowa is unable to generate first downs through the air, it’s going to have to challenge Mississippi State’s defensive line with running backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young.
Sargent is coming off back-to-back triple-digit rushing outings against Illinois and Nebraska, but those two Big Ten sides don’t compare defensively to what Mississippi State brings to the table.
Mississippi State 13, Iowa 9
If you feel inclined to bet on the Outback Bowl, throw all of your money toward the under.
Even if Fitzgerald and Stanley lead their respective teams down the field, there’s a decent chance they’ll have to settle for field goals.
Iowa’s Miguel Recinos is 15-for-20 on field goals with a long of 49 yards, while Mississippi State’s Jace Christmann is 9-for-13 with a 47-yard kick being his longest.
Expect both kickers to receive plenty of airtime Tuesday before a touchdown is scored.
When you finally see a touchdown in Tampa, cherish it because it will be the only one you witness, as Fitzgerald finds a way to get into the end zone in the second half to topple Iowa.