Iowa's playoff (and bowl) future wide open in final week

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa remained No. 4 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings. But the only one that counts comes out Sunday, about 12 hours after Saturday’s Big Ten Conference championship game ends in Indianapolis. And that’ll be the one that ultimately seals the Hawkeyes’ bowl fate.

Is it the playoff semifinals, in the Cotton or Orange? If not the playoff, is it the Rose for the first time in 25 years? Or is it the Fiesta or Peach? It’s genuinely plausible that each one has about a 20 percent chance. It’s that wide open.

But yes, barring something completely unexpected, one of those five bowls will welcome Iowa on either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1. Tuesday’s CFP rankings provided a little bit of a clue.

Before breaking down each of the five games’ chances for Iowa, it’s important to know the current top 10.

The top five stayed the same as last week: Clemson (12-0) leads the way, followed by Alabama (11-1), Oklahoma (11-1), Iowa (12-0) and Michigan State (11-1).

Iowa fans support the Hawkeyes' 28-20 win at Nebraska on Black Friday.

Rounding out the top 10 were Ohio State (11-1), Stanford (10-2), Notre Dame (10-2), Florida State (10-2), North Carolina (11-1).

Two of the key teams to note are Ohio State and North Carolina as this discussion continues:

Iowa goes to the Orange or Cotton Bowls (Dec. 31, 3 and 7 p.m. CT) if … the Hawkeyes beat Michigan State in Indianapolis on Saturday night. It’s up to the 12-person selection committee to decide where to put No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3. But if Clemson, Alabama and Iowa all win conference championships this week, the four qualifiers would be obvious. Their seeds would be the only remaining mystery.

It would make sense if the Orange (in Miami) got current No. 1 Clemson because it typically hosts the Atlantic Coast Conference champion in years it doesn’t host a playoff game. If Iowa stays at No. 4, then the Hawkeyes could very well be making their third bowl trip to Miami under Kirk Ferentz against the nation's only other unbeaten.

If Iowa looks really good in dispatching Michigan State (and Clemson and Alabama hold serve), it could jump idle Oklahoma into the No. 3 spot and then be more likely to face the Crimson Tide in the Cotton (outside of Dallas).

Iowa goes to the Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, 4 p.m. CT) if … well, there are two primary ways.

One, the Hawkeyes lose to Michigan State and stay ahead of Ohio State in the final CFP rankings. The Rose Bowl is contracted to get the Big Ten and Pacific-12 champion, unless that champion is invited to the playoff. This year’s Big Ten champ is definitely playoff-bound, so it would take the next-highest-ranked Big Ten team, barring extreme circumstances. Staying ahead of the No. 6 Buckeyes might be tough after Ohio State’s 29-point win at No. 14 Michigan to end the season, although Iowa can counter with a 30-point win at No. 13 Northwestern on its resume.

Two, Ohio State jumps into the top four. The best chance of that happening is if North Carolina beats Clemson in the ACC title game but does not reach the playoff. Given that the Tar Heels are No. 10 now, it might be a tall hill to climb six spots with one win. A season-opening loss to 3-9 South Carolina and two nonconference wins over FCS teams both hurt.

“Their overall strength of schedule is important,” committee chairman Jeff Long said Tuesday. “And they do have a loss, to a team that’s near … the bottom of the SEC. The fact is, playing FCS’s, having a bad loss … is holding them back, certainly.”

Iowa goes to the Peach (Dec. 31, 11 a.m. CT) or Fiesta (Jan. 1, Noon CT) bowls if … the Hawkeyes lose to Michigan State and Ohio State jumps them for a Rose bid. Iowa would almost certainly remain in the “New Year’s Six” bowl games, which pit 11 of the highest-ranked CFP teams plus the highest-ranked non-Power Five school. Iowa would not be a candidate for the Sugar Bowl, which is contracted for an SEC vs. Big 12 matchup (likely Mississippi vs. TCU or Baylor).

The leading pool of candidates for the Peach (Atlanta) or Fiesta (near Phoenix) are the Iowa/Michigan State loser, Notre Dame, Florida State and Saturday’s Houston/Temple winner. That would all change if Clemson or Alabama were to be upset this weekend.

We’ll know so much more in five days. But as things are about to change, some things never do. Less than a week after Iowa rebuffed radio personality Colin Cowherd’s guarantee that it would lose to Nebraska, another polarizing talking head weighed in against the Hawkeyes.

“Iowa has no chance to win this game (vs. Michigan State),” ESPN’s SEC guru, Paul Finebaum opined Tuesday. “I do not see it happening. And I have been a fan of Iowa lately. They have a nice team, but they’re running up against the big boys Saturday night in Indianapolis.”

“New Year's Six” schedule (all televised on ESPN)

Thursday, Dec. 31

Peach – 11 a.m. CT (Atlanta)

Orange (playoff semifinal) – 3 or 7 p.m. CT (Miami)

Cotton (playoff semifinal) – 3 or 7 p.m. CT (Arlington, Texas)

Friday, Jan. 1

Fiesta – Noon CT (Glendale, Ariz.)

Rose – 4 p.m. CT (Pasadena, Calif.), Big Ten vs. Pac-12

Sugar – 7:30 p.m. CT (New Orleans), Big 12 vs. SEC