Leistikow's thoughts on Iowa's Music City bid vs. Missouri: Deserved better bowl fate

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Iowa fan base has long desired a trip to the Music City Bowl, with an understanding of Nashville’s festive reputation and location within an 8½ hour drive of Iowa City.

But between this being a pandemic year and the feeling of a consolation prize for a streaking Hawkeye football team, Sunday’s selection was mostly a disappointment.

And frankly, the 6-2 Hawkeyes' season deserved better than a matchup with 5-5 Missouri of the Southeastern Conference on Dec. 30 at Nissan Stadium.

That’s not to say they should’ve been picked ahead of 6-1 Indiana (which headed to the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss after being boxed out of the New Year’s Six lineup) or 6-2 Northwestern (which is heading to the Citrus Bowl against Auburn after beating Iowa head-to-head and giving playoff-bound Ohio State a good game in Saturday’s Big Ten championship). But the Music City nod clinches the fact that Iowa won’t get a measuring-stick game to test its six-game winning streak, during which it’s throttled opponents by an average margin of 22 points and played some of the best complementary football of the 22-year Kirk Ferentz era.

Missouri's five losses were all by at least 19 points — including 51-32 on Saturday at previously 2-7 Mississippi State. But it's a border-state battle, which has a chance of evoking some emotions. And it does rekindle memories of the teams' last meeting — Iowa's 27-24 win in the 2010 Insight Bowl, where Micah Hyde intercepted first-round NFL Draft pick Blaine Gabbert and returned it 72 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes have a No. 15 College Football Playoff ranking entering the Music City Bowl.

The Iowa-Missouri game is set for a 3 p.m. CT kickoff (a Wednesday) and will be televised on ESPN. Yes, tickets are being sold. The Tennessee Titans have permitted 20% capacity (roughly 14,000 fans) for their home games. If the game is canceled due to COVID-19 or reaches a point where fans cannot be accommodated, refunds will be given.

"It's going to be great for our players, because they'll actually play in front of fans," Ferentz said Sunday after collecting his 18th bowl invitation as Iowa's coach and eighth in a row. "We haven't done that in almost a year (since the 2019 Holiday Bowl)."

Six Big Ten teams opted out of bowl games, but Ferentz said Iowa wants to play.

The question is, can they?

Friday’s revelation that Ferentz had tested positive for COVID-19 raises legitimate concerns that there are and will be further positive tests within the program. Players were given some time off after the cancellation of the Iowa-Michigan game and are scheduled to return to team activities Monday and will be tested then.

Given the Big Ten’s stringent protocols, Iowa’s participation in a bowl game might hinge on the results of Monday’s tests. If Iowa has too many positives, it would be forced to pause activities. Only one Big Ten team (Ohio State) has returned to play after missing just one week due to a COVID-19 issue; considering there are 10 days between Sunday’s bowl announcement and the Music City Bowl, time would not be on Iowa’s side if it was forced to pause.

Again, there's nothing imminent. But it's something to think about; and it's something Ferentz acknowledged, too, while also side-stepping questions about whether any of his players would individually opt out of the game.

"I'm not sitting here predicting we're not going to have bumps in the road. It's already been seen, it can happen anywhere, anytime," Ferentz said. "(We) could get shut down. If it happens to us, it happens to us.

"Knock on wood, hopefully we can get through 10 more days."

In a pandemic year in which there are no win requirements for bowl participation, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers pre-emptively announced they would not accept bids. And that’s understandable. It’s been an emotionally draining nine months — dating to the stoppage of spring-football practice on March 13 — for Big Ten players who have been subject to rigorous COVID-19 testing since June and had their season canceled then restarted. Couple that with the holidays and coronavirus hotspots seemingly everywhere, and there’s no shame for those teams in ending the season now.

When players resume practice Tuesday, they're essentially starting a game week.

Ferentz is staying home until Dec. 27 due to his COVID-19 diagnosis. He hopes to be cleared to return then and plans to lead the team on the sidelines in Nashville unless, he quipped, he gets "hit by a truck."

"I was really kind of surprised when the positive test came back. I'm really fortunate, I haven't had much issue," Ferentz said. "The cough is annoying, but it's subsided a little bit. ... I do realize a lot of people haven't been so lucky. I consider myself extremely lucky. Hopefully, it'll stay that way the rest of the way."

But logistically speaking, this is a tight turn for a bowl game. The staff plans to learn more about Missouri on Monday before holding practices Tuesday and Wednesday. Ferentz said the team will fly to Nashville on Dec. 29, the day before the game. 

"It's just going to be a business trip," Ferentz said. 

In the meantime, he's overseeing things the best he can on Zoom from his home.

"We'll be able to handle it. It won't be that big of a deal," Ferentz said. "The coaches don't have a lot of time. We've got to get on film and put a plan together and make sure (that's) in pretty good shape by the end of the week."

Indiana deserved to be in the New Year’s Six.

But 2020 defies logic. Once automatic bids were secured by 4-2 Oregon (a non-division winner which won the Pacific-12 title game) and 8-3 North Carolina (due to the ACC’s tie-in with the Orange Bowl), that left the final New Year’s Six spot to be debated between Indiana and 8-3 Iowa State.

Playoff committee chairman Gary Barta (who will meet with Iowa media on Zoom Monday) told a national audience that Indiana “didn't have the quality wins that Iowa State had. Iowa State had beaten Oklahoma and Texas. So, when it came down to comparing those two, in particular, Iowa State was given the nod.”

I would argue that Indiana had quality wins, too — beating preseason No. 7 Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin — and its loss (at Ohio State, by seven) was a better-quality loss than any of Iowa’s State’s three. Still, I would’ve liked to see both the Hoosiers and Cyclones get in over a third team from the weaker ACC, but that was not contractually possible.

The choice of Iowa State ultimately dropped Iowa from a spot in either the Florida-based Citrus or Outback bowls. And considering the SEC got four teams in the New Year's Six (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M), it watered down Iowa's quality of opponent for the Music City Bowl.

The Hawkeyes were listed as early 14-point favorites against Missouri.

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.