IOWA CITY — Iowa will face an unfamiliar opponent in familiar surroundings when it faces Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“Whenever you get a chance to take the field against an SEC team, you know you’re going to face good competition,’’ Hawkeye quarterback Nate Stanley said. “It will be a challenge, but that’s a good thing in my mind. It’s a huge opportunity for us.’’
If nothing else, Iowa will feel at home at Raymond James Stadium.
The Hawkeyes were selected Sunday to play in the Tampa bowl game for the third time in six seasons and for the sixth time in the last 15 years.
“We know we’re in for a great time, warm weather and that we’ll face a great opponent,’’ Iowa free safety Jake Gervase said. “If there is a good place to go back to, the Outback Bowl is it.’’
For Gervase, the match-up will allow plenty of family members to watch his final collegiate game.
The senior from Davenport Assumption said for years his grandparents have hosted 60-to-70 family members over the holidays at a condo they own located about 45 miles north of Tampa.
One of the first people he heard from Sunday was his grandmother, Kathy Wolfe, who has kept the tradition going after her husband, Bob, passed away.
“She texted me and said she’s excited to get to see my final game,’’ said Gervase, who said as many as 70 family members might be part of the crowd at the game. “It’s going to be a pretty big deal for them and I’m excited about it, too.’’
The match-up against Mississippi State, a team which shares an 8-4 record with the Hawkeyes, will be the first meeting between the programs and is the Bulldogs’ first-ever Outback Bowl appearance.
Outback Bowl CEO Jim McVay said the quality of the team and the bowl’s familiarity with Iowa fans had a lot to do with the Hawkeyes being selected ahead of Big Ten West Division champion Northwestern and two other teams which defeated Iowa this season, Purdue and Wisconsin.
“We know what we’re getting with Iowa. They’re a tough team that can compete with anybody and their fans love the Hawkeyes,’’ McVay said. “They were the best team available to us.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said familiarity had a lot to do with how receptive the program was about a return trip to the Outback Bowl, where the Hawkeyes lost 30-3 to Florida two years ago.
“It’s nice to go somewhere knowing that we’re going to have a tremendous opportunity to have a good experience outside of the football part of things, and then the football is a given,’’ Ferentz said. “Anytime we’ve played there, we’ve played a really good opponent. This will be another one of those matchups.’’
The Bulldogs finished 4-4 in the SEC, losing conference games to Kentucky, Florida, LSU and Alabama -- teams that have a combined record of 40-9.
First-year coach Joe Moorhead previously worked as the offensive coordinator at Penn State, but his team has been winning with defense. The 12 points per game allowed by Mississippi State are the fewest allowed by any Football Bowl Subdivision program this season.
“Any game against a rated opponent, a good SEC opponent, it’s going to be a test,’’ Iowa center Keegan Render said. “You expect that this time of year when you go to a bowl and you welcome the chance.’’
Gervase sees that as well.
“We’d like to get to nine wins and finish the season with a good effort,’’ he said. “I’ve taken a couple of quick looks at some (video) clips of them and they’ll be a good test for us in a lot of ways. Good quarterback, good talent. We’ll have to earn it, but that’s OK. We like a good challenge.’’
Stanley considers that part of the attraction.
“We didn’t come away with the win the last time we were there, but this is a different year and a different team,’’ Stanley said.
“We’ll prepare hard and put together a plan that will give us a chance to compete. If you want to be the best, you need to compete well against good competition and this will give us a chance to do that. We’re anxious to get to work.’’