TAMPA — For some, Iowa's turnaround this season has been one of the biggest surprises in college football.
The players, however, say they knew it was possible all along.
The Hawkeyes finished 4-8 last season, failing to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2000. Now, after a 3-4 start, Iowa is a win over No. 14 LSU in Wednesday's Outback Bowl away from clinching its best season since 2009, when it finished runner-up for the Big Ten title with an 11-2 record and defeated Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Iowa senior FS Tanner Miller said after the team's sixth win at Purdue on Nov. 9, coach Kirk Ferentz set a goal to finish with nine. They responded with back-to-back wins over Michigan and Nebraska — despite being underdogs against both — to close out the regular season.
The Hawkeyes will again assume the role of long shot against LSU, which is favored by 71/2 points. But that hasn't fazed Miller and the Hawkeyes, who are focused solely on accomplishing Ferentz's objective.
"Only 13 teams in history of Iowa football have won nine games. That's a pretty elite group when you sit back and look at it from that perspective," Miller said. "That was something that we took on as senior leaders of the team, that we wanted to be part of that group and be able to leave our mark on this team."
Senior LB and four-year starter James Morris agreed, adding that there's extra motivation knowing it will be the final time he puts on an Iowa uniform.
"I always want to play my best," he said, "but given that it will be my last time, I want to make it a game worth remembering."
BIG CHALLENGE: If LSU beats Iowa, it would give the SEC four Outback Bowl victories over the Big Ten in the past five years.
Tigers coach Les Miles credited the strength of the Big Ten this season and said it won't be easy to defeat the Hawkeyes, who have two wins against the SEC in three Outback Bowl appearances, Florida (2004) and South Carolina (2009).
"That conference is a tremendously competitive, very capable football conference," Miles said. "The more you study the teams that they played and succeeded in beating, the Big Ten conference is every bit as capable as any conference in America."
BIGGER CHALLENGE: The lack of film on LSU freshman QB Anthony Jennings is making Iowa's preparations for the Tigers offense more difficult.
The Hawkeyes have faced several mobile quarterbacks this season — including Heisman trophy finalist Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois — which they hope will provide a glimpse of what Jennings is capable of.
"We have to be ready for anything," Ferentz said. "I don't expect a wholesale change, but I'm sure we'll see a wrinkle or two."