CLEARWATER, Fla. — There can’t be anyone left back in Iowa.
The population of the whole ice-covered state looks like it’s descended on Tampa Bay, diving right in and soaking up as much as they can of the Gulf Stream we take for granted to take back with them to Des Moines and Iowa City and Ottumwa.
At least the equivalent of the population of Council Bluffs — the equivalent to Omaha, Neb., across the Missouri River as Port Allen is to Baton Rouge across the Mississippi — was jammed onto Clearwater Beach on Monday for Outback Bowl Beach Day.
It was hard to tell what was bleached whiter: the sugary sand or the Iowa fans.
They don’t get out much this time of year, you see.
They outnumbered LSU fans like the Mexican army surrounding the doomed defenders of the Alamo, them and a couple of wandering Alabama fans who apparently got lost here on the way to the Sugar Bowl. At least they got to see Iowa’s version of Elvis — and Clearwater’s version of Captain Jack Sparrow.
It was the same with the football teams. The entire Iowa squad — and maybe a couple of bowl-deprived guys from Iowa State who snuck onto the Hawkeyes’ team bus — descended on a hamburger and hot dog buffet like boll weevils on an Alabama cotton field.
When the LSU team, and I use the term loosely, showed up, there weren’t enough players to come up with one side for a game of seven-on-seven. Maybe the rest of the Tigers had reservations at a top-end Tampa steakhouse, but they were definitely noticeable by their absence.
Les Miles was there, too, but it was more like a command performance than something he really wanted to do.
The whole beach day scene reflected what these two teams and these two fan bases think about being in the Outback Bowl:
For LSU, bowling is a business trip, like going with lawyers to cut a TV rights deal for the new SEC Network.
For Iowa, bowling is fun, like Wednesday night bowling league back home in Ames (if you’re impressed with my geographic knowledge of Iowa, I want you to know I haven’t Google- mapped once while writing this column).
If you’re LSU, the serious demeanor is understandable.
In their current 14-year-long bowl run, the Tigers have played for the national championship three times. LSU has made two other BCS bowl trips to the Sugar. Another bowl, any other bowl, even one played in a garden spot like Tampa, is going to inherently be a letdown of a sort.
If you’re Iowa, beaches and 70-degree weather are like being sprung from sharing a jail cell at the South Pole with the abominable snowman. TSA agents are going to have drag some of these Iowa fans on their planes to go back home and face below-freezing highs for another two or three months.
Both sides could probably learn a little something from the other.
The Tigers need to relax and not press after losing three of their past four bowl games.
It’s too bad that too many of their fans (LSU has sold only about 7,000 tickets so far) didn’t take advantage of a great bowl trip, because games like the Outback are supposed to be about fun, not championships.
The Hawkeyes need to play like there is something seriously worthwhile at stake — if nothing else, a momentum springboard to next season.
As for the fans from each side, there isn’t much animosity to be found. Iowa fans were wishing LSU fans good luck as they passed by, even the guy who had the Hawkeye helmet logo shaved into his chest hair.
Of course, you have to say these two programs aren’t on the same level of expectations.
For Iowa, the memory of The Catch — the game-winning pass to beat LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl — is a goosebump-inducing program highlight.
For LSU, the loss was hardly the most disappointing thing to happen that day. It was the sight of Nick Saban waving goodbye for the last time as LSU’s coach, heading off to the Miami Dolphins, the lure of the NFL finally winning out.
It’s a tough task to convince LSU folks that playing in the Outback Bowl is that important of a deal. For LSU, bowls are big business, not a diversion.
But like this reporter — who wrote this column in a restaurant — can’t a bowl trip be a little of both?