Even with low stakes, Mississippi State and Iowa have goals in Outback Bowl

Published 6:03 pm Monday, December 31, 2018

In a sea of New Year’s Day bowl games and the wake of the College Football Playoffs, it’s easy to overlook Tuesday’s Outback Bowl between Iowa and Mississippi State.

The two teams, after all, finished closer to the middle of their conferences than the top. The bowl game doesn’t mean anything on the national stage. It does, however, mean a lot to the players and teams involved.

Whether it’s a bowl win that will help in recruiting, a positive end to the season, or simply one last game with their friends and teammates, there’s still plenty to play for.

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“It’s going to be big, especially for (head coach Joe) Moorhead,” Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said. “This is his first time with us. This is his first bowl game with us. Just for the program, coming all the way down here to Florida and playing Iowa. It’s going to be big.”

Simmons is one of several Mississippi State stars who have declared for the NFL draft but decided to play in the bowl game, along with fellow All-America defensive tackle Montez Sweat and safety Johnathan Abram. All three are considered among the best at their positions in the 2019 draft.

While a growing number of NFL hopefuls opted to skip their team’s bowl game rather than risk injury, Abram said that never seemed to enter the equation for the Bulldogs.

“We all care about each other as a team. We made a group decision to come back and play in this game because it’s not about us. It’s not about a single person. It’s about the team more than anything,” Abram said. “That’s what we all wanted to show. You’ve got a lot of guys that go sit out these games, but if you really think about it what is two weeks going to change in the process of coming out for the draft or combine? It really doesn’t change anything.

“If you can run a four 40, you’re going to run a four 40. If you can’t throw, you can’t throw,” Abram added. ”Two weeks isn’t going to change what’s going to happen over the course of the next couple of months before the draft, so I think it is kind of selfish.”

Even for the Bulldogs who aren’t expected to be high NFL picks, playing in the bowl game has some value.

Nick Fitzgerald is the Southeastern Conference’s career rushing leader among quarterbacks with 3,504 yards and 45 touchdowns, but he only completed 52.6 percent of his passes this season.

Fitzgerald said the extra practice time — bowl teams get an extra two weeks under NCAA rules — has allowed him to work on some of the weaker aspects of his game.

“With 15 extra practices comes 15 more opportunities to get better, especially the earlier ones when you just found out who you will be playing and you are not doing a lot of game planning,” said Fitzgerald, who has rushed for 1,018 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. “You are doing a lot of individual work and routes on air. For me, it was working on passing, pocket presence, feet in the pocket, keeping eyes up and delivering an accurate ball.”

On a team level, the Outback Bowl is a chance for both Iowa (8-4) and Mississippi State (8-4) to bring a satisfying conclusion to a season that never quite lived up to expectations.

Iowa lost three consecutive Big Ten games by a total of 12 points, dashing its hopes of a trip to the conference championship game. It will instead play in the Outback Bowl for the sixth time.

In his 20 seasons leading the Hawkeyes, coach Kirk Ferentz has coached as many games in Tampa as in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Columbus, Ohio.

“There are no bad bowls,” Ferentz said. “Some are better than others, but there are no bad ones.”

Mississippi State, meanwhile, entered the season with dreams of knocking off Alabama in the SEC West. Despite having one of the best defenses in the country, that did not happen.

The Bulldogs lost four games against Top 15 teams — including Alabama — and wound up in the Outback Bowl for the first time. They still can finish with back-to-back nine-win seasons for just the second time in school history.

This is Mississippi State’s ninth straight bowl appearance and second in a traditional New Year’s Day game. It beat Louisville 31-27 in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville last season.

“It means a lot. With coaching changes, ups and downs we’ve had this year, the wins and losses, we’ve been through a lot. The offseason, everybody tried to adapt. We’ve got that bond,” Simmons said. “We’ve built a bond with these coaches. Coaches built a bond with these players. From that point on, everybody has been tight. It’s big for everybody to have that type of connection and bond.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

• Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
• Tuesday, 11 a.m.
• Radio: 105.5 FM

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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