Iowa football's bowl-selection outlook: Citrus, Outback or something else?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

If Caleb Shudak’s 52-yard field goal attempt had gotten a more beneficial ricochet off the right upright against Northwestern, would the Iowa Hawkeyes be playing Ohio State on Saturday for a shot at the College Football Playoff?

All other things remaining the same, yes … they probably would be.

A (hypothetical) 7-1 Iowa on a seven-game win streak would have loved a shot at the unbeaten Buckeyes. For those that don’t recall, Shudak — Iowa’s kickoff specialist — launched a kick at the end of the first half that looked like it would curl in for three points and a 23-14 Iowa lead … but caromed backward, instead of left. Iowa wound up losing the game, 21-20, and fell to 0-2 before winning six straight. By virtue of that one-point win at Kinnick Stadium, Northwestern (6-1) won the Big Ten West Division.

Instead of a having a playoff shot Saturday, the Hawkeyes are idle — their game against Michigan canceled over the Wolverines’ rising COVID-19 numbers — and have zero control over their bowl fate ahead of Sunday's selection process.

Instead of a best-case scenario of a Rose Bowl playoff semifinal, the Hawkeyes’ most realistic best scenario is a return to the Vrbo Citrus Bowl (formerly Capital One Bowl) for the first time in 16 years. If that doesn’t happen, it’s most likely the Outback Bowl for the seventh time in the 22-year Kirk Ferentz era.

But, remember, this is unlike any other bowl year. Some games are already canceled. Imbalanced schedules create more confusion over who should be ranked (or picked) ahead of another team. Even after a bowl invites two teams, it is one COVID-19 spike away from a disrupted or canceled game.

To get a better sense of the bowl process and how six-win Big Ten teams Indiana (playoff ranking of No. 11), Northwestern (No. 14) and Iowa (No. 16) are being evaluated, I caught up with Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan. After the New Year’s Six bowl lineup (which includes his Orange Bowl) is chosen Sunday, Hogan's committee will select a Big Ten vs. Southeastern Conference matchup for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl that kicks off at Noon CT at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

Iowa has not been to a Citrus Bowl since Jan. 1, 2005; Northwestern hasn't been since 1997; Indiana has never been to the game in Orlando, Florida.

Here are some questions that Hogan helped answer ahead of conference-championship weekend, followed by some final thoughts.

Yes, the Citrus is looking at Indiana (6-1), Northwestern (6-1) and Iowa (6-2).

“Six-win teams in this case are great, and all three of them have had great seasons,” Hogan said. “Iowa’s playing well, and we’ve had so much fun when we’ve had them in the past. Love (athletics director) Gary Barta, love coach (Ferentz). It’d be awesome.”

The Hoosiers are on the edge of the New Year’s Six lineup, at No. 11, and don’t play Saturday. If Ohio State beats Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, it’s possible the Big Ten accounts for only New Year’s Six spot (compared to possibly four for the SEC, three for the Atlantic Coast Conference and two for the Big 12). In that case, Indiana would almost certainly head to the Citrus for the first time in program history.

The No. 1 thing Iowa fans can root for to make sure two Big Ten teams get into the New Year’s Six: A win by No. 6 Iowa State against Oklahoma in Saturday's 11 a.m. Big 12 title game. That would almost certainly drop the No. 10 Sooners below Indiana, thus leaving the Citrus with an Iowa vs. Northwestern choice, with the other team going to the Tampa-based Outback Bowl (Jan. 2, 11:30 a.m. CT, ABC).

Northwestern hasn’t been to Orlando since 1997. 

“One thing that will be an impact a little bit is (Iowa’s) head-to-head loss to Northwestern,” Hogan said.

If Northwestern gets pummeled by Ohio State, perhaps it becomes more palatable for a red-hot Iowa team to jump the Wildcats for the Citrus, considering both teams would be 6-2.

Here’s one scenario to watch: If 20-point underdog Northwestern upsets Ohio State in Indianapolis, then the Wildcats likely head to the Orange Bowl. Then, the Outback would be contracted to take an ACC team (as is the arrangement if a Big Ten team makes the Orange). That is the type of scenario that could result in Indiana going to the Citrus and Iowa sliding into the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (Dec. 30 in Charlotte vs. an ACC team) or Music City Bowl (Dec. 30 in Nashville vs. an SEC team).

Iowa and Northwestern could end up battling on bowl-selection Sunday in the eyes of the Citrus Bowl committee.

What SEC teams might be waiting?

The surprisingly high No. 7 ranking of 8-2 Florida, despite a bad home loss to LSU last week, leaves Hogan thinking that the Gators won’t slip to the Citrus. However, a resounding loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game could change that. If the Gators are available, the Citrus would gladly snap them up for the first time since 2016.

Otherwise, Hogan thinks it’ll be either Missouri (5-4, which plays at Mississippi State on Saturday) or Auburn (6-4 and has fired coach Gus Malzahn). Of those two, whatever team doesn’t get picked by the Citrus would likely go to the Outback.

The Citrus (and Outback) are planning for 20% stadium capacity, which means about 13,000 fans each.

Hogan trumpeted the fact that Orlando has played host to sporting events — such as the NBA bubble and MLS tournament. Also, he is proud that Camping World Stadium has received a GBAC STAR accreditation for outbreak prevention.

“We’ve been through it,” he said.

And yes, for the first time this season — Big Ten fans (outside of families of players) can actually attend games. Tickets are already on sale at both sites.

Incidentally, the extended forecast for Orlando shows a high of 77 degrees on Jan. 1.

What happens if a team can’t play due to COVID-19?

The Citrus Bowl’s current TV spot is ideal; an ABC broadcast on New Year's Day, leading into the College Football Playoff games on ESPN. However, the possibility exists to slide the game back to another TV window, as long as it occurs before the Jan. 9 national title game.

Hogan also said a substitute team could be possible.

“We will do everything in our power I would say, as would our partners, to safely put on a game,” Hogan said. “If there’s another team in the country, even in another conference, that’s idle (and) you can solve that problem, I think he would be prepared to do that.”

A best-guess forecast of what happens Sunday ...

Here's how I see it for Iowa entering Saturday, understanding that the results of these championship games — Oklahoma-Iowa State, Northwestern-Ohio State, Clemson-Notre Dame, Alabama-Florida — will greatly impact the bowl lineup.

Citrus Bowl (40% chance): Ohio State and Indiana need to make the New Year's Six for this to become an Iowa vs. Northwestern discussion. The Hawkeye fan base's passion for postseason travel, even amid a pandemic, coupled with the so-called "eye test" gives Iowa its best hope for Orlando. An Iowa-Missouri matchup for the first time since the 2010 Insight Bowl would be fun and have recruiting implications in the prized St. Louis area (where the Hawkeyes have extracted the likes of Marvin McNutt, A.J. Epenesa and Sam LaPorta). 

Outback Bowl (45% chance): A fourth Tampa trip in nine years might seem like overkill, but remember: The Big Ten only has four teams with a winning record. The Outback would gladly take a sizzling Iowa team over 3-3 Wisconsin or 4-5 Penn State and feel confident in selling a fair share of tickets. Iowa and Auburn have never met in football.

Other bowl (15% chance): I think Iowa had a realistic New Year's Six shot had it blown out Michigan to get to 7-2, but that's a microscopic probability now, maybe 1-2%. If Ohio State is playoff-bound and Indiana drops to the Citrus, I could see the Outback defaulting to Northwestern (knowing there's some Iowa fatigue), which might send the Hawkeyes bowling in Charlotte or Nashville (an 8½ hour drive from Iowa City) for the first time.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.