Iowa vs. Kentucky: 5 things to know about the Hawkeyes' Music City Bowl opponent
A trip to the Music City? A chance to write a new tune.
Iowa’s season fell short of expectations, but the Hawkeyes could at least end on the right note with a victory in Nashville in the Music City Bowl. For years, fans of college football theoretically have pinned the B1G and SEC against each other to determine which conference reigns supreme.
Come New Year’s Eve, Iowa and Kentucky will have the chance to settle the score on the field in a matchup of 7-5 teams.
Despite an early season victory over Florida, the Wildcats vastly underwhelmed after a 10-win season in 2021. Multiple games ended with 2nd-half collapses, and the offense took a step backward following the departure of coordinator Liam Coen. Still, Kentucky might be riding a high after a rivalry win over Louisville in Week 13.
Meanwhile, Iowa fell flat in its season finale, losing to Nebraska for the 1st time in 8 meetings. Since then, several players have announced their intent to enter the transfer portal.
Both teams likely will have a variety of moving parts in the nearly monthlong leadup to the noon ET kickoff on Dec. 31 at Nissan Stadium.
For now, here are 5 things to know about the Iowa’s matchup with Kentucky:
Deja vu or redemption?
Does anyone feel like Phil Connors in “Groundhog’s Day”? You wake up and see the same thing again and again and again?
This bowl game is a rematch of last season’s Citrus Bowl, so both teams should have a good feel for what they’re up against. Down in Orlando, Will Levis threw for 233 yards and a touchdown while Chris Rodriguez Jr. averaged 5.4 yards per carry in a 20-17 Wildcats victory. Sam LaPorta gave Iowa a 4-point lead with just under 11 minutes left with a 36-yard TD reception, but Rodriguez punched in a score from 6 yards out with just under 2 minutes remaining.
That was the first meeting of the schools, so Iowa will be looking to even the series.
Next season’s rematch in the College Football Playoff? (Ned? Ned Ryerson?) Given enough chances, Iowa could get this right!
A familiar face in Lexington
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops played defensive back at Iowa under Hayden Fry from 1986-89. Fry kickstarted Stoops’ coaching career by offering him a position as a graduate assistant. Without Fry, perhaps the 55-year-old Stoops never becomes the coach he is today.
Since arriving in Lexington, Stoops has catapulted a program that plays second fiddle to basketball at Kentucky. He’s gone 66-58 during his 10 seasons, leading the Wildcats to a pair of 10-win seasons and top-25 finishes. Because of the consistent success, Stoops was granted a contract extension through 2031, boosting his annual salary to $8.6 million per year.
Some have speculated that Stoops could be tempted to leave the SEC and return to his alma mater if and when Kirk Ferentz elects to hang up the whistle for good. For now, the former Hawkeye will continue to build his legacy as Kentucky’s all-time winningest coach. At least at this coaching stop, Stoops trumps Bear Bryant, who had 60 wins leading the Wildcats before winding up at a more famous SEC football factory.
All eyes on Will Levis
Levis is a unique character with unique tastes. He eats bananas unpeeled. He mixes mayo in his coffee, then guzzles it down with a straight face.
Will Levis drops dimes & drops mayo in his morning coffee ☕️
— 247Sports (@247Sports) July 20, 2022
He also is a proven winner. Since joining the program from Penn State in 2021, Levis has been among the SEC’s more consistent quarterbacks. Even in a down season this year, the 6-3, 232-pound passer has put up substantial numbers and kept the Wildcats in games.
Last season, Levis totaled 3,202 yards (passing plus rushing) and 33 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. This year, he completed 65.4% of his throws for 2,406 yards and 19 touchdowns. He lost 107 yards and scored just 2 TDs with his legs as his line surrendered 42 sacks.
It’s possible Levis doesn’t play against Iowa. Last month, the potential 1st-round pick declared for the 2023 NFL Draft, but he has not specified his bowl intentions. Injuries could factor into his decision. Throughout the year, Levis has dealt with a turf toe injury, even missing a game against South Carolina because of it. Redshirt freshman Kaiya Sheron is 17-of-29 for 187 yards in 4 appearances this year as the backup.
Defense defense defense
Iowa’s defense is one of the nation’s finest. Close behind is Kentucky, whose defense played a vital role in keeping the Wildcats in games this season. Defensive coordinator Brad White has built a reputation for hard-hitting fronts and undervalued secondaries.
Both were on display this season at Kroger Field.
The Wildcats ranked 12th nationally in scoring defense (19.1 points per game) and 3rd among SEC schools, trailing only powerhouses Georgia and Alabama. Its pass defense impressed, ranking 7th nationally (173.4 yards per game) and finishing with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed (10:9). Against Georgia, the Wildcats held one of college football’s more prolific scoring offenses to a mere 16 points in a 10-point loss.
Winning on the ground will likely be key for Iowa. Kentucky has shown weakness in defending the run, allowing Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee to rush for over 170 yards in their matchups. This season, opponents have averaged 4.3 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns vs. the Wildcats.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. is the x-factor
Rodriguez finished with 906 rushing yards on the season. While that might seem low compared to his 1,379-yard performance in 2021, keep in mind that these numbers are from just 8 games.
Rodriguez missed the first 4 games due to a team suspension. Once he returned against Ole Miss, the 4th-year Wildcat made up for lost time. Rodriguez finished with 5 100+ rushing performances, including a season-high 196-yard outing against Mississippi State. He averaged 5 yards or more per carry in 4 games, and finished with pair of multi-touchdown games.
It is unclear if Rodriguez will play in Nashville or elect to go pro. Iowa’s run defense remains its bread and butter, ranking 13th nationally (104 yards per game) and allowing 4 touchdowns all season. If Rodriguez isn’t the guy, junior Jutahn McClain likely sees ample reps since Kavosiey Smoke already has entered the transfer portal.
In 9 games, McClain has totaled 238 yards on 49 carries. He also has 15 receptions.