TAMPA — Far from the playoffs and playoff teams — and the actual sight of UCF finally losing — another Outback Bowl unfolded Tuesday.
Yeah, the cowbells from Starkville got old. And, really, how many times can we say, "Wow, they grow them big in Iowa?" But it was a sunny day and there was good football at Raymond James Stadium, for once. Hey, that a coach didn't get fired after was a marked improvement.
As usual, the Outback provided, as Iowa beat Mississippi State, 27-22, in see-saw battle of traditional interstate rivals, or as traditional as you can get when you're meeting for the first time.
Pay no attention to that. These teams don't like each other. Hey, these two states don't like each other. I think it goes back to when Iowa loaned its car to Mississippi State and Mississippi State didn't top off the tank.
The crowd wasn't large — 40,000 or so — but the 33rd Outback Bowl packed some excitement, all that two 8-4 teams could muster. What's wrong with Big Ten vs. SEC and hundreds of college and high school bands in "An American Celebration" at halftime?"
We do live here, you know.
The Outback Bowl and Iowa are old friends. Tuesday marked the sixth Outback Bowl for Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, a record for head coaches. If Ferentz comes back one more time, he qualifies for a voter ID.
I love the Outback Bowl. I love all bowls. My new year wouldn't be complete without a visit with Outback president and CEO Jim McVay, who is forever catching heat for his salary, which tops $1 million for one game, nice work if you can get it.
I love McVay because he has never met an Outback Bowl matchup he didn't like. This one was no different. The man relentlessly cheerleads his game and Tampa Bay. If I had my way, President Trump and the United Nations could stand down over North Korea and Iran. Give McVay two Outback Bowls and he'll get both of them straightened out. I can just hear him.
"You know it was 6 degrees in Pyongyang this morning. Think those North Korea kids wouldn't like a beach day in Clearwater? Think the kids from Teheran wouldn't like a team day at Busch Gardens? They're getting a new coaster."
Meanwhile, back at the game, it was back and forth.
Mississippi State, armed with the nation's top scoring defense, jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but couldn't make touchdowns. It held Iowa to minus-15 yards rushing on the day — and lost. Eight Bulldog penalties, several of them crucial, didn't help.
Iowa struck back for two touchdowns, including one for 75 yards, quarterback Nate Stanley to game MVP Nick Easley, the longest play against Mississippi State this season, to take a 17-6 halftime lead.
Mississippi State struck back. An interception and long return by Bulldogs linebacker Willi Gay Jr. set up a touchdown. A fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff set up a touchdown run by Bulldogs QB Nick Fitzgerald.
By the way, that fumble on the kickoff, by Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette, was the most spectacular play of the game, as Smith-Marsette tried to hurdle a tackler, but went end over end, a complete flip, as the ball was knocked out by a teammate. It wasn't the iconic Outback action shot — South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney knocking the helmet off Michigan's Vincent Smith at the 2013 game — but it was good enough Tuesday.
Iowa struck back. Stanley hit Easley for 8 yards and the winning touchdown late in the third quarter. The Hawkeyes sealed the deal with defensive stops, including an interception in the end zone by safety Jake Gervase.
That's more than enough play by play, more than any Outback Bowl deserves. But a good time was had by all, eventually even by Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, who was briefly knocked loopy by a big Iowa hit. Hill returned. "I'm good," he tweeted after the game.
We all were good, really. No harm was done. No championship was on the line, as usual, and neither Iowa nor Mississippi State made news by beating UCF.
But it was sunny out and the football shined, too.
I mentioned my idea for a North Korea-Iran Outback Bowl to McVay.
"Bring them on," he said with a smile.
All we are saying is give peace a chance.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-802. Follow @mjfennelly