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As much as timeless traditions and lifelong loyalties make up the heart of college football, speculation and debate are ingrained in the soul of the sport.
The framework of these discussions has evolved, from national polling to the Bowl Championship Series and now the College Football Playoff. But the disagreements themselves are woven into the very fabric of fall.
The jockeying extends beyond the playoff and New Year's Six contests these days — the battle for bowl-game hierarchy is fierce, too. And with Iowa and Iowa State both primed for upper-tier slots this season, we're peeling back the curtain to explain just what is realistic for the Hawkeyes and Cyclones come "selection Sunday" on Dec. 8.
These next few weeks, we'll take a look at current projected positioning, the domino effect a win or loss that particular Saturday will have on the team's placement within its conference's pecking order, and other games that superfans need to follow.
How the bowl process works
You know the basics at the top. The College Football Playoff is in its sixth season. A committee gathers. It ranks teams weekly in November (this season's first poll is Nov. 5). The top four reach the playoff. The next-best six to eight teams, plus the top non-Power Five side, comprise the New Year's Six games (a rotation of the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose and Sugar bowls).
From there. it's up to individual conferences to determine how they want to handle their schools. Each league has its unique style. The Southeastern Conference, for example, lets the Citrus Bowl have first pick, and then the league takes charge and assigns schools to bowls (while consulting with bowl representatives).
Big 12 Conference
The Big 12 champ is locked into the Sugar Bowl against an SEC opponent if it isn't part of the playoff. If that's the case, the conference picks a replacement (which would normally be the title-game loser).
From there, it's the Wild West. The conference doesn't get too involved in adjudicating spots. "Big 12 bowl partners will make selections from any available teams" when their turns come up. Placement in the league standings is important, but not the be-all, end-all. And it doesn't matter how many times a team has been to a bowl game in recent years. If a site wants a school back, the bowl can choose them over and over if they think it'll maximize their revenue.
The selection order for the 10-team Big 12: Alamo (San Antonio), Camping World (Orlando, Florida), Texas (Houston), Liberty (Memphis, Tennessee), Cheez-It (Phoenix) and First Responder (Dallas).
Big Ten Conference
The 14-team Big Ten has a bit more structured, if not unwieldy, process to determine its bowl selection. The league has been signing six-year agreements around which it sends teams and attempts to spread the wealth, with different teams in different cities, as much as possible.
This year is the perfect time to examine the conference's exercise, with it being the final season of the current agreement from the 2014-2019 seasons. (The league's new arrangement begins in 2020.) We'll look at the options based on the conference's determined bowl hierarchy. All year designations listed below are relative to the fall season associated with that team's placement.
Citrus Bowl (Orlando, Fla.): The Big Ten's participation is often dependent on whether a team from the league is chosen to participate in the Orange Bowl. If the conference is left out, then the Citrus swoops in. Over the six-year period, the Citrus is to take five different schools when applicable. Schools selected: Minnesota (2014), Michigan (2015), Penn State (2018).
Outback Bowl (Tampa, Fla.): At least five schools in the six-year agreement. The bowl has already used its repeat choice, and Iowa fans are pretty sure they know who that is. Translated: The Hawkeyes won't be returning this New Year's. Nor will any of the other listed schools selected: Wisconsin (2014), Northwestern (2015), Iowa (2016, 2018), Michigan (2017).
Holiday Bowl (San Diego): At least five schools in the six-year agreement. Long a bit of a white whale for the Hawkeyes, who haven't been back since 1991. (I've read many a Chad Leistikow paragraph echoing this sentiment the past few years.) And the Holiday is out of the next Big Ten rotation, so it's now or never for the fan base. The way this season is shaking out, this destination is quite plausible (more on this below). Schools selected: Northwestern (2014), Michigan State (2015), Minnesota (2016), Wisconsin (2017), Nebraska (2018).
Music City Bowl (Nashville, Tenn.) and TaxSlayer Gator Bowl (Jacksonville, Fla.): These bowls are a package deal. Each gets three Big Ten schools over the six-year agreement, and a Big Ten school can't repeat at the same site in that time frame. In this current round, the Big Ten has had three Music City participants and two Gator participants. So it's almost certainly a Gator year to close this round, and the Hawkeyes have already been. Cross this pairing off the list, too. Music City schools selected: Nebraska (2016), Northwestern (2017), Purdue (2018). Gator schools selected: Iowa (2014), Penn State (2015).
Pinstripe Bowl (New York): The Big Ten says its "goal" is to get eight schools to the Yankee Stadium in the eight-year agreement it signed with the game. The conference's history with this bowl dates to 2014. At minimum, six different schools must play in the game. The Big Ten is 5-for-5 so far in this venture. With Iowa having recently visited New York, a repeat trip, though not impossible, doesn't seem likely here, either. Schools selected: Penn State (2014), Indiana (2015), Northwestern (2016), Iowa (2017), Wisconsin (2018).
Redbox Bowl (Santa Clara, Calif.): At least five schools in the six-year agreement. The Bay Area bowl has fulfilled this requirement already, so a repeat is possible here. Iowa hasn't participated in that time frame, so this is a potential landing spot if November goes south. Schools selected: Maryland (2014), Nebraska (2015), Indiana (2016), Purdue (2017), Michigan State (2018).
Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit): This bowl will pick a Big Ten school if there are any left to be taken. This one's usually for the 6-6 crowd. Schools selected: Rutgers (2014), Minnesota (2015), Maryland (2016), Minnesota (2018).
First Responder Bowl (Dallas): Similar to the Quick Lane, this is another leftover landing spot. The Big Ten has an alternating-year agreement with the bowl, but the matchup is usually left to the non-Power Five hodgepodge. Schools selected: Illinois (2014).
Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland says it's "unfair" to expect Martin to play extensively in his first year in the program. Hawk Central
Where Iowa stands now
It's helpful to go through this exercise to determine where the No. 19 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) could land. If the conference strictly follows its agreements, the Hawkeyes cannot go to the Outback or the Gator. And if Iowa even goes a mere 2-2 to wrap the season, the lowest one could envision the Hawkeyes falling in the pecking order is the Redbox.
Obviously, the goal remains winning a Big Ten title and returning to the Rose Bowl. That's a daunting task, but still a mathematically possible one. Provided that scenario does not unfold, however, the goals would have to be either the Citrus (and representatives from this game were watching the Hawkeyes against Northwestern) and the Holiday.
Who might Iowa's competition be for those games? Barring big surprises, Ohio State and Penn State both look like locks for the New Year's Six pool, so they're no problem. Minnesota (8-0) is in the top 15, but their big tests all come this final month. Michigan (15th) and Wisconsin (17th) are jockeying with the Hawkeyes for upper-echelon bowl placement.
This exercise simply underscores the massive importance of the Hawkeyes' next two games. Not only are Wisconsin and Minnesota the Big Ten West's other power players, but they're also likely Iowa's chief bowl competition. Beat them both, and Iowa can taste a divisional title and almost certainly a Citrus Bowl appearance at worst.
Lose both, or trip up against Illinois or Nebraska, too, and a Redbox trip will seem like a $1 rental of a consolation prize.
If we were to take this pool of four teams — the Hawkeyes, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — and match the Big Ten criteria, you get some interesting results among the most reasonable Iowa landing spots.
Citrus: Because of the New Year's Six, the Citrus is already in technical violation of its five-schools-in-six-years criteria. So it would stand to reason that the bowl could pick whatever school was available. But if it follows the spirit of the agreement, Minnesota and Michigan have both been to Orlando since 2014. So, provided neither Wisconsin nor Iowa makes it into the New Year's Six, then one would think the winner Nov. 9 has the inside track.
Outback: Cannot select Wisconsin, Iowa or Michigan if it follows the rules. That leaves Minnesota as the lone logical choice, and the Gophers have already played in the Citrus Bowl in this cycle. Barring a Cinderella-like run (think Iowa in 2015), expect P.J. Fleck's squad to be slotted here to solve a bunch of problems.
Holiday: A repeat school is possible here, given the bowl's ability to select five different schools the past five years. Minnesota and Wisconsin have both been to San Diego recently, so Iowa would be an attractive new fan base for the bowl. The fly in the ointment is potentially Michigan, which itself hasn't played in this game since 1994.
My early conclusion: Beyond rooting for their own team, Iowa should root like heck for Michigan so that the Wolverines are a fringe New Year's Six selection. The Hawkeyes won't want the blue-blood cache to be competing with for a worthy bowl spot. If Iowa can take care of enough business and not have the Wolverines fighting at the same table, then the Citrus or Holiday are far and away the most likely results.
What the experts say
Jerry Palm, CBS Sports: Holiday, vs. Washington
Erick Smith, USA TODAY: Redbox, vs. Washington
Mark Schlabach, ESPN: Gator, vs. Tennessee (Juicy irony here, although again, this placement seems unlikely because of the conference's bowl rules)
Kyle Bonagura, ESPN: Holiday, vs. Washington
Where Iowa State stands now
It really cannot be understated just how costly the Cyclones' home loss to Oklahoma State could prove to be. Iowa State (5-3, 3-2) could be a top-20 team right now and could have made a clear line of demarcation between itself, Oklahoma, Baylor and the rest of the league. Instead, they're part of a five-team scramble with records between 3-2 and 2-3.
The conference's bowl hierarchy, at this moment, is a giant pile of scrambled eggs. And that's exactly what this league's free-for-all process doesn't need. This'll be a volatile scenario week to week. Iowa State needs to go 3-1 to hit eight wins and feel comfortable about reaching one of the three more desirable locations outside the New Year's Six (Alamo, Camping World, Texas).
My early conclusion: Barring a 4-0 finish, I think a repeat trip to the Alamo Bowl is out. Go that 3-1 I just mentioned, and Iowa State will finish 6-3 in the league, likely tied for third and able to head to Orlando for a Camping World Bowl, theme-park-friendly holiday. Anything less, and Cyclones fans should happy accept a Texas Bowl invite.
What the experts say
Jerry Palm, CBS Sports: Cheez-It, vs. Wyoming
Erick Smith, USA TODAY: Texas, vs. Stanford
Mark Schlabach, ESPN: Texas, vs. Texas A&M
Kyle Bonagura, ESPN: Texas. vs. Miami (Fla.)
Games of impact this week
Michigan at Maryland: Again, Iowa fans, root for the Wolverines, however painful that might seem.
Northwestern at Indiana: The Hoosiers (6-2) could burst into this conversation with a strong finish, but they have a pair of prove-it games coming against Penn State and Michigan in mid-November that will clear up this picture.
Kansas State at Kansas: The 5-2 Wildcats' shocking win over Oklahoma and the program's relative pedigree over the past 20 years will make Chris Klieman's bunch attractive if it can keep winning. The regular-season finale could loom large.
TCU at Oklahoma State: Like it or not, Iowa State's toe-stubbing last week at Jack Trice Stadium has invited the Cowboys (5-3) into the jumbled Big 12 selection pool for the upper-tier bowls.
Danny Lawhon works across the Register's sport department, from social media and sports wagering to bowls, brackets and data dives. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.
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