Leistikow: As bowl-selection Sunday nears, Outback emerges as leader to take Iowa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Holiday Bowl has been pining for Iowa for years. That San Diego game’s representatives have been omnipresent at recent Iowa football games, easy to spot with their bright-red sport coats.

They don't care who knows it: They want the Hawkeyes.

But they may not get a chance to take them, because one of two Florida games may step in first.

“The Outback Bowl has been here, too," Iowa athletics director Gary Barta pointed out. "Their coats just aren’t as red.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is shown during the 2017 Outback Bowl in Tampa, where the Hawkeyes were defeated, 30-3, by Florida. The Outback could take the Hawkeyes again this year.

In advance of Sunday’s revelation of bowl bids, the Citrus (in Orlando) and especially the Outback (in Tampa) were still in play to nab 8-4 Iowa for their Jan. 1 games.

Barta has been in regular touch with all three bowl directors this week. In my conversation with him Tuesday, he pointed to the Outback and Holiday as being the more likely choices. While noting that Citrus Bowl executive director Steve Hogan “loves the Hawkeyes," Barta added: "The scenario for us to go to the Citrus Bowl would have be something kind of unique and crazy."

The buzz for the Outback Bowl is growing, people close to the program keep telling me. But nobody knows for sure, though, until the New Year's Six bowl lineup is revealed to the world late Sunday morning.

The old days of handshake agreements with bowl executives are gone, with the College Football Playoff committee assigning matchups for the top six bowl games leading into an organized selection process to follow.

After the New Year's Six is settled, the Citrus will take a Big Ten Conference team; then the Outback; then the Holiday. Iowa should know its fate by early afternoon Sunday.

"What I can do is try to influence," Barta said. "But, contractually, the bowls select who they want to select."

Barta understands there might be Outback Bowl fatigue among fans. Iowa has been there five times under Kirk Ferentz. But he contended that much of the fatigue is tied to the Hawkeyes losing their last two trips there (to LSU after the 2013 season, to Florida after 2016).

He also understands a vocal majority among fans that want to see the Hawkeyes return to San Diego for the first time in 27 years.

“We haven’t been to the Holiday Bowl for the long, long time. We could get a great crowd there. And the games we have played there were all close, exciting," Barta said. "On the other hand, the Outback Bowl loves having us. There are so many Hawkeye fans down in Florida. It’s easier to get to Florida for a lot of our fans."

How could it all unfold? And who might Iowa play?

I examined each of the three likely possibilities. Without knowing Saturday's championship-game results, I'd classify the Outback as a 65-percent likelihood. Give the Citrus, the Holiday and something totally unexpected the other 35 percent.

Citrus Bowl

Specifics: Jan. 1, 2019, Noon CT at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. (ABC)

Possible opponents (SEC tie-in): There’s a very good chance it’s 9-3 Kentucky, which is coached by former Hawkeye player and graduate assistant Mark Stoops.

How it could happen: Keep your eye on Penn State. If the 9-3 Nittany Lions are available, the Citrus will snap them up. But … if big favorites rule their conference championship games Saturday (Clemson over Pittsburgh; Ohio State over Northwestern), then Penn State (currently No. 11 in the CFP rankings) could crack the New Year’s Six, either in the Fiesta or Peach. That would then present the Citrus with a probable choice between 8-4 Iowa and 8-5 Northwestern.

What’s to like: This is the only network television game on New Year’s Day. Fun memories would be rekindled in Iowa’s return to Orlando for the first time since the Drew Tate-to-Warren Holloway miracle finish, 14 years to the day.

Final thoughts: The Hawkeyes are hungry for a signature win. If they could beat No. 15 Kentucky, they would probably become the second Iowa team in eight years to finish the season nationally ranked. I'm with Barta; this is Iowa's least likely landing spot of the three.

Outback Bowl

Specifics: Jan. 1, 2019, 11 a.m. CT at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. (ESPN2)

Possible opponents (SEC tie-in): If 9-3 LSU (currently No. 10 in the CFP rankings) gets nudged out of the New Year’s Six as the fourth SEC team, it seems likely the Tigers spill to Tampa (having been to the Citrus the last two seasons). No. 19 Mississippi State, No. 22 Texas A&M and Missouri (all 8-4) are also in the mix.

How it could happen: It really comes down to whether the Outback is comfortable taking Iowa for the second time in three years. If Iowa is on the table here, there’s a chance Northwestern and Penn State are off it. And that means the Hawkeyes, who are coming off two solid wins to end the season and have two high-profile, NFL Draft-eligible tight ends, would be more attractive than 7-5 Michigan State or 7-5 Wisconsin. The Big Ten’s agreement is to have at least five different teams in the Outback in six years. So far, the Outback has taken four in four (Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan). Even if Northwestern is also available, I see the Outback being ecstatic in taking Iowa as a repeat customer, given the number of tickets it would sell. Plus, if it grabs Iowa now, it would still have big-brand teams like Michigan State, Nebraska and Penn State as possibilities next year.  

What’s to like: A challenging, ranked opponent is a strong likelihood. In a season of missed opportunities for Iowa, another one would emerge.

Final thoughts: I know there's some Outback fatigue, but this is a solid bowl with great hospitality against a very good opponent. Mississippi State (with the nation's No. 1 defense at 4.14 yards-per-play allowed) would present a daunting matchup.

Holiday Bowl

Specifics: Dec. 31, 6 p.m. CT at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Fox Sports 1)

Possible opponents (Pacific-12 tie-in): If it loses to Washington in the Pac-12 title game, No. 17 Utah would be 9-4 and a prime candidate for its first Holiday Bowl. Oregon (8-4) hasn’t been to San Diego since 2008. The winner of Stanford vs. California (both 7-4) can’t be ruled out.

How it could happen: If Iowa makes it through the Citrus/Outback picks, the Holiday will be thrilled to make a phone call to the Hawkeyes.

What’s to like: The nostalgic return to the site of three entertaining bowl games (one-point wins in 1986 and 1987; a tie in 1991) would excite the fan base. The postcard-perfect weather would be a complete 180 from last year’s frozen Pinstripe Bowl in New York City.

Final thoughts: Of Iowa’s three bowl possibilities, this offers the best chance at a win. But of the three, it will be most ignored nationally (on New Year’s Eve, on FS1). Facing Oregon would be a fun challenge. This would check off a long-desired bowl location for fans who fondly remember Hayden Fry’s three trips there.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.