Iowa Hawkeyes sports reporters Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert break down the Hawkeyes' 56-14 win over Nebraska from Lincoln. Bryon Houlgrave/The Register
The Dec. 29 Music City Bowl in Nashville has become the people’s choice among Iowa football postseason destinations.
But how likely is it to be the actual choice?
Certainty won’t arrive until after dominoes tumble following Sunday’s reveal of the College Football Playoff rankings and New Year’s Six matchups.
Four games remain in play for the Hawkeyes. The Music City and Pinstripe (Dec. 27, in New York City) are the two most likely destinations, but the Holiday (Dec. 28, in San Diego) remains in play while the Foster Farms (Dec. 27, in Santa Clara, California) has a very slim chance of happening.
But Nashville, at this juncture for Iowa football, is what most Midwest-based Hawkeye fans are hoping to see happen.
First and foremost, the bowl can be reached in a variety of ways without major travel inconvenience. Iowans take pride in a good, long drive, especially if it costs a fraction of flying. Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said he’s told Music City director Scott Ramsey as much. To Iowans, putting 4-6 bodies in a van for 8½ to 10 hours is more appealing than worrying about checked baggage, airport security and possible flight delays around Christmas.
Second, hotel rooms are much cheaper in Nashville (between $100 and $200 a night) than New York (possibly double that or more, especially if you stay in Manhattan).
Third, the general atmosphere in Nashville is appealing. The temperatures would be a little warmer (average late-December high in north-central Tennessee is in the low-50s vs. New York’s low-40s with higher chances for snow). Plus, Hawkeye fans like going to bowl destinations that feel like parties, with lots of other Hawkeye fans — of which I’m confident Nashville would attract.
Fourth, Nashville is the “Country Music Capital of the World.” According to multiple surveys over the past few years, the most popular music genre among Iowans? Country.
Lastly, the Music City will offer a mid-range Southeastern Conference opponent. Iowa administrators, coaches and fans really want to break a five-game, seven-year bowl losing streak.
Prestige of the bowl, honestly, isn't as important this December as a final-game win.
A lot of Iowans broke the bank two years ago to head to the Rose Bowl. They don’t want to do that this time, not for a 7-5 team. New York, San Francisco and San Diego will price out a lot of fans who want to have a good time but save money for perhaps more prestigious bowl destinations in 2018 and/or 2019.
That’s not to discount the thousands of Hawkeye fans in these major cities. New York, as an example, boasts a strong Iowa alumni presence.
But the majority wants Nashville. And that majority was tantalized Tuesday afternoon when, for a few minutes, the University of Iowa’s website listed the Music City Bowl (and its $85 ticket price) on its coming athletic attractions. “Totally inadvertent,” a UI spokesman said in an e-mail, noting the ticket office prepares for all bowl possibilities. “Unfortunately, that one was live for a very short period before being removed.”
Now that Hawkeye fans' hopes are up to see their team play in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium (home of the Tennessee Titans) for the first time … what needs to happen to get them there?
Let’s examine the four possibilities one more time:
Barta called this a “long shot” after Iowa’s 56-14 win against Nebraska. But the most prestigious of Iowa’s bowl possibilities is not impossible.
If you want the Hawkeyes to be San Diego-bound, root for No. 5 CFP Alabama (or any SEC team) to end up fifth in the final College Football Playoff rankings and for three Big Ten teams (No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 8 Ohio State, No. 9 Penn State) to remain in the New Year’s Six.
This year’s New Year’s Six bowl lineup includes the two national semifinals (Rose, Sugar) plus the Orange, Fiesta, Peach and Cotton. The Orange must pit an ACC representative (probably the Miami-Clemson loser) vs. the highest-ranked non-playoff team from either the SEC, Big 12 or Big Ten.
If a Big Ten non-champion is in the Orange, then the Citrus cannot take a Big Ten team. If the SEC fills the Orange spot, Michigan State is a near lock for the Citrus Bowl. That scenario would likely put 8-4 Michigan into the Outback Bowl, because 9-3 Northwestern went to Tampa in 2016, and leave the Holiday with a choice.
Iowa or Northwestern?
Despite a two-game difference in the standings and Northwestern’s head-to-head win Oct. 21, don’t rule out Iowa getting the nod. USA TODAY’s latest projections have Iowa facing Washington in the Holiday.
“We look at record, but we don’t necessarily have to take the next team with the best record after the games in front of us pick,” Holiday Bowl representative Steve Norton told me two Saturdays ago. “Again, we have to ask ourselves: 'Who will watch the game? Who will come to the game? How many seats will we fill?'”
Music City Bowl
Ramsey did not respond to an interview request, but SEC Country quoted him as saying that Iowa, Northwestern and 6-6 Purdue are the top candidates for the game.
That makes sense because even if Michigan State gets knocked down to the Outback (by either Ohio State falling out of the New Year’s Six or the Citrus not getting a Big Ten team), the Holiday would almost certainly jump at the chance to grab Michigan. Then Ramsey might have an Iowa vs. Northwestern decision, too.
If Michigan State stays in the Citrus, Iowa is in play here, too; if the Holiday takes Northwestern. Then it’s Iowa vs. Purdue, and 10 times out of 10 a bowl game’s preference would be to take the more travel-ready fan base.
But a key thing to remember is that while bowl teams submit a request for a school, it is "subject to conference approval based on selection parameters." So, if commissioner Jim Delany wants to speak up, he has that right. He might not want to see 9-3 Northwestern (which can't play in the Pinstripe) continually punted down the line.
The most likely Music City opponent would be 7-5 Kentucky — a surging program which is coached by former Hawkeye player Mark Stoops, who lettered in Kirk Ferentz’s final three years as Iowa’s offensive line coach (1987-89). Texas A&M, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri are also possibilities.
The game at Yankee Stadium offers nostalgic appeal. It also has an interesting stipulation that the Big Ten goal is to have eight different teams in eight years visit the Bronx. (This is now Year 4 of the arrangement, with Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern already in the books.)
Pinstripe Bowl executive director Mark Holtzman told the Register on Wednesday that his hands on team preference are basically tied until the Music City casts its verdict. If he's left with Purdue and Northwestern, he'll have to take Purdue.
"There are a number of bowls that pick ahead of us," Holtzman said. "We all talk. We're friends. But at the end of the day, they want the bigger brands, too."
The most projected ACC opponent here is 8-4 Louisville, which is led by 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Iowa heading to the Pinstripe might be as simple as the Music City picking Northwestern ahead of the Hawkeyes. And you couldn't really argue that.
Foster Farms Bowl
Purdue seems to be the most likely team to visit the Bay Area and face a Pac-12 opponent.
For Iowa to end up here would mean the Big Ten got only two New Year's Six spots, with one of them being the Orange. Or else the Pinstripe took Purdue ahead of Iowa, which probably isn't happening.
Sunday, we'll finally know for sure how it all shook out.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.