LSU has kept opponents on their toes all season with one of the nation’s most balanced offenses.
It remains to be seen if the No. 14 Tigers can maintain that identity when an injury forces them to start a true freshman at quarterback against a stingy Iowa defense.
LSU will turn to Anthony Jennings when it meets the Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day in Tampa.
The Tigers (9-3), playing in a bowl game for the 14th consecutive year, rank 21st nationally with 37.0 points per game while utilizing a balanced attack. They average 265.1 yards through the air - 33rd in the country - while their running game ranks 35th with 200.8 yards per game.
In Tampa, they’ll try to maintain that offensive harmony without senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whose college career came to an end when he suffered a left knee injury in the fourth quarter of LSU’s 31-27 win over Arkansas on Nov. 29.
Mettenberger has been projected as an early-round draft choice after throwing for 22 TDs and finishing within 266 passing yards of Rohan Davey’s single-season school record of 3,348. His 179.2 passer rating was third nationally, trailing only Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
Jennings will get the nod in this one for LSU, which will start a quarterback other than Mettenberger for the first time since a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship game.
Jennings attempted only 10 passes this season, completing six for 99 yards, though he did lead a 99-yard go-ahead touchdown drive against the Razorbacks, capping it with a 49-yard pass to Travin Dural.
“The good news is that the quarterback has been preparing all along,” coach Les Miles told the school’s website. “We’re not in a position that we have to change a lot. We will run our offense just the way it is. That will benefit him because that is what he has been doing the entire year anyways.”
Jennings does have the luxury of throwing to the only 1,000-yard receiving duo in school history: Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Landry has caught 75 passes for 1,172 yards and 10 scores, while Beckham has 1,117 on 57 receptions with eight TDs.
Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be surprising to see LSU lean more on its ground game, led by sophomore back Jeremy Hill. Hill, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored 14 TDs, ran for a season-high 184 yards when LSU dealt No. 2 Auburn its only loss on Sept. 21.
Hill and his teammates will be up against an Iowa squad that won its final three games - two on the road - on the strength of an impressive defense.
The Hawkeyes (8-4) have been tough against both the run and pass, ranking among the FBS’ top 17 units in total yardage for each. Opponents are averaging 18.8 points and 303.2 total yards a game, the 11th- and seventh-fewest in the country.
Linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey all rank among the Big Ten’s top 10 tacklers. Morris tied for second in the country among linebackers with four interceptions.
Iowa started its season in mediocre fashion, losing three of its first seven games, though those defeats came against Northern Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State - teams that went a combined 36-3.
“They did not get dismayed when we were 4-3; they improved and turned the corner and had a good season, a very enjoyable season,” coach Kirk Ferentz, who is 6-4 in bowl games, told the team’s website. “Our guys have a lot of fun together, they take a lot of pride in what they do, and that is the type of team that is fun to coach.”
Ferentz would love to see the Outback Bowl turn out the same way his team’s only other meeting with LSU did. The Hawkeyes beat the Tigers 30-25 in the 2005 Capital One Bowl when Drew Tate connected on a 56-yard TD pass to Warren Holloway as time expired.
Miles was introduced as LSU’s new coach the next day after Nick Saban left the program to coach the Miami Dolphins.
Iowa will be looking to improve to 5-2 against SEC teams in bowl games and 3-1 in the Outback Bowl after a 31-10 victory over South Carolina in the 2009 edition.
“It’s a great opportunity for us. We had a pretty good regular season and we want to finish strong with a good game against a good opponent,” said running back Mark Weisman, who ran for four TDs in the final three games. “You get to play a very good team, that’s what you want in college football. You want to play good competition in a bowl game.”
Iowa nearly had a quarterback scare of its own with sophomore Jake Rudock exiting late in its season-ending victory at Nebraska due to a knee injury, but he is expected to play.
The Hawkeyes are 14-11-1 all-time in bowl games, while LSU is 22-18-1, though the Tigers have dropped three of their last four.
LSU lost on its only other trip to Tampa with a 23-10 defeat against Syracuse in the 1989 Hall of Fame Bowl.