What Big Ten team has the most to prove in the postseason?

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What Big Ten team has the most to prove in the postseason?

No one can argue the stakes for Ohio State are bigger than for any other Big Ten team this bowl season.

The Buckeyes are the No. 4 seed in the inaugural College Football Playoff, taking on No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Big doings for a Buckeyes squad that is searching for its first national title since 2002, which also happens to be the last time the Big Ten was king of college football.

But Iowa has the most to prove of any Big Ten squad this postseason. Yep, the 7-5 Hawkeyes need to stand and deliver a win vs. Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

“We’re very appreciative and I’ll tell you we would have been appreciative going to any bowl this year and having a chance to play anybody,” Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s what you’re competing for and hoping to do, so I’m thrilled to be going to Jacksonville and very thrilled they had faith in us and are rewarding us with a great opportunity.”

This isn’t where most envisioned Iowa spending the bowl season. The Hawkeyes had a veteran team that looked to have one of the best combination offensive-defensive lines in the Big Ten. And, as any coach will tell you, games are won in the trenches.

Iowa also had an experienced quarterback in Jake Rudock, depth at running back and a schedule that was uber-friendly. Add it all up, and the Hawkeyes looked poised to win the Big Ten West—or at least finish second.

It was all right there for Iowa to take in November, boasting a 7-3 mark (4-2 Big Ten) entering two season-ending and season-defining games at home vs. Wisconsin and Nebraska. What did the Hawkeyes do? They lost, 26-24 to the Badgers and 37-34 in overtime to the Cornhuskers.

Alas, Ferentz’s 16th team finished fourth in the division with a 4-4 record behind Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. Iowa went 2-4 in its last six games after opening 5-1. And the Hawkeyes failed to beat a FBS team that finished with a winning record. The best victories? On the road vs. 6-6 Pitt and 6-6 Illinois.

“You can’t move backward,” Ferentz said. “Anybody that has ever competed would understand we’re disappointed and we want to do better. That’s our goal. Now we have three-plus weeks to get better as a football team and try to line up and play our best football.”

That’s exactly what Iowa needs to do—play its best and win–vs. a 6-6 Tennessee program that’s very much a work-in-progress as it makes its first bowl appearance since 2010.

This is a team Iowa should beat. This is a team Iowa must beat.

You can be guaranteed that the Volunteers are stoked out of their mind to be in this bowl. Check out the celebration when UT learned of its bowl destination.

Is Iowa pumped for the TaxSlayer? Who knows? But the Hawkeyes’ attitude will be telling—and key. So often these bowls come down to which team wants to be there—not which team has more veteran talent.

“I think it’s going to be big,” Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Mabin said Monday. “The way I see it is that there’s no turning back now. We had a 6-6 season and we got the chance to play in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but now we just got to keep climbing. This is the first stepping stone. Next year, we’re going to elevate and the next year, we’re going to elevate.”

Tennessee is on the rise under Butch Jones, who is 11-13 in two seasons in Knoxville cleaning up the messes left by Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. Jones has his Vols headed to Jax playing the most freshmen in program history. In their opener against Utah State, the Vols played 21 true freshmen and 32 newcomers. And on it went all season.

What direction is Iowa headed? While this bowl won’t provide a definitive and absolute answer, it will be telling and set a tenor moving forward for a program that recently christened one of the most beautiful football facilities.

The Hawkeyes need a victory. An 8-5 mark looks and sounds a whole lot better than a 7-6 record. Perception matters—big time.

A victory vs. Tennessee would provide some mojo and impetus for the Hawkeyes heading into the offseason. Ferentz will have plenty of talent back in 2015 to make a push for the division crown. A big season would be nice. Since capping an 11-2 campaign in 2009 with an Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech, Iowa has gone 34-29 overall and 19-21 in the Big Ten.

“It’s exciting for all of us (to play Tennessee),” said Ferentz. “We’re looking forward to an opportunity to line up and play again.”

And hopefully win.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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