Iowa's top bowl scenarios include Stanford rematch, Tampa surprise

Chad Leistikow,

An Iowa-Stanford bowl-game rematch? It’s more of a possibility than you might think.

And surprise, a January bowl game has joined the mix, too.

The Hawkeyes’ postseason football fate will remain cloudy until after Sunday’s final College Football Playoff rankings are determined. But interviews by The Des Moines Register with 8-4 Iowa’s three top bowl options shed some light on the most likely scenarios.

And another matchup of last year’s Rose Bowl combatants is definitely on the list.

The bowl-selection process in the playoff era, now in its third year, is complicated. “Ifs and buts” are appropriate qualifiers to any pitched scenario. We won’t know until we know Sunday.

“I cannot imagine," Outback Bowl president Jim McVay said, "how the average fan can follow this."

A Register analysis of the meticulous procedures and guidelines, plus talking to key parties involved, pegs the most likely of Iowa’s three landing spots as the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which features a matchup of teams from the Big Ten and Pacific-12 conferences.

Iowa Hawkeye football fans will have to wait until Sunday to find out where to book their airline tickets to follow the Hawkeyes' bowl game in person. It could be San Diego, Tampa or Nashville.

The Jan. 2 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., has picked up momentum and is running a strong second as an Iowa possibility, and the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., is trailing in third.

But if it’s the Holiday, the most likely Pac-12 representative would be either 9-3 Stanford or 8-4 Washington State, Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville said. The Holiday Bowl has never hosted Stanford since its 1978 inception; Washington State has been there once (in 2003).

“I could put together a strong argument as to why we would take Stanford,” Neville said. “And I could put together a strong argument as to why we would take Washington State.”

If it’s Iowa-Stanford Part II in Southern California, the matchup would be met with mixed reactions from Hawkeye fans.

Some 50,000 bumblebees spent thousands of dollars a year ago for a pilgrimage to Pasadena, Calif., only to watch the Cardinal's Christian McCaffrey (who's still on the team) dice through Iowa’s defense in a 45-16 rout in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The possibility of reliving that day in Qualcomm Stadium, located 2½ hours south, is unappealing.

Yet there’s always the possibility of sweet, Hawkeye revenge.

“In the way the Iowa fans are looking at it is probably the way a lot of people are looking at it out here,” Neville said. “We don’t know if (a rematch) is a positive or negative. Usually it’s the team that loses that is more eager to play the game.”

Input from both schools and conferences would be considered. If Iowa and/or Stanford were adamant about avoiding a rematch, it wouldn’t happen.

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta declined to be interviewed for this story, but on the subject of a possible rematch he supplied this statement through a spokesman: “Every bowl brings exciting matchups, destinations and experiences for our student-athletes and coaches. We will be thrilled no matter where we end up, no matter who the opponent.”

Stanford also is mum. On maybe facing Iowa again, a spokesman for Stanford athletics director Bernard Muir said: “We’ll respectfully decline to comment.”

USA TODAY Sports’ latest bowl projections have an Iowa-Stanford rematch in San Diego. But for that to be possible, Iowa would have to be on the table when it's the Holiday's turn to pick.

And that’s where the Outback Bowl comes in.

Why Outback?

Going into this weekend’s set of games, the Big Ten has four teams ranked in the College Football Playoff committee’s top seven.

It’s therefore plausible that Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State would be selected by the committee for the six premier bowl matchups (the Peach, Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar, Rose and Orange — commonly known as the “New Year’s Six”).

After the New Year’s Six, if a Big Ten team goes to the Orange (which is likely; trust us, it's complicated), the Outback is next to pick a Big Ten team, with the conference providing final approval.

Under that scenario, the Outback's choice would be between Iowa and 9-3 Nebraska.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the Cornhuskers. They’ve never been to the Outback Bowl and won one more game than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's been there four times since 2003, most recently in 2013.

But the Outback Bowl's McVay insisted those things are “not a factor to us. We’re trying to reward the teams for what they accomplished this year; how they’d match up against an SEC team this year."

Not lost on McVay: Iowa finished strongly, including a win over then-unbeaten Michigan and a head-to-head 40-10 trouncing of Nebraska on Black Friday.

“Iowa’s always attractive to us. We like Iowa,” he said. “We like a couple other teams in the Big Ten."

Keep an eye on Saturday's Penn State-Wisconsin Big Ten championship game, too. If Penn State loses and falls out of the New Year's Six, the Outback likely will take the Nittany Lions. If Wisconsin falls, the Badgers would be sent down the line, and it'd still be a choice of Iowa or Nebraska.

And that’s where the Holiday, next in the Big Ten pecking order, comes in.

Why Holiday?

The Holiday Bowl won’t take Nebraska or Wisconsin. The Cornhuskers played there in 2009, 2010 and 2014, and one of the goals under a new Big Ten agreement adopted prior to the 2014 season was to avoid sending teams back to a recent destination. The Badgers played USC in San Diego last year.

So no matter who's available the Holiday would zero in on Iowa or Minnesota.

And the Hawkeyes beat the Gophers 14-7, on Oct. 8 in Minneapolis.

“That definitely plays into their favor right there,” Neville said. “We have great memories of Iowa when they played in the Holiday Bowl.”

Neville is referring to 1991, his first year with the bowl as an intern. That year marked the Hawkeyes’ third trip to San Diego in six seasons under Hayden Fry, a 13-all tie with BYU that followed Iowa victories in 1986 (over San Diego State, 39-38) and 1987 (over Wyoming, 20-19).

Though Iowa hasn’t been back in 25 years, its fans left a positive legacy with Holiday representatives — also known as the “Redcoats” for their trademark bowl blazers.

"There’s so many of our old-timers that are still Redcoats," Neville said. "And they look back as Iowa being one of their favorite teams they’ve ever had out here. It’s an awesome fan base."

The more information that comes out, the less likely it seems both the Outback and Holiday would bypass Iowa.

But if somebody in a fancy office balks at a potential Iowa-Stanford rematch, then the Music City could step in.

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Why Music City?

It seems the only way the Hawkeyes move onto Nashville’s radar is if the Holiday opts for Minnesota over Iowa.

The Music City has never had Iowa but would love to have the chance. The bowl expects a Big Ten vs. Southeastern Conference matchup.

“You’re always trying to catch a hot team, and certainly they’re a hot team,” Music City executive director Scott Ramsey said of the Hawkeyes. “I think their fans would really enjoy our city, with the unique tie-in to (quarterback and Nashville native) C.J. Beathard.”

Ramsey thinks his game will end up with Wisconsin, Nebraska or Iowa from the Big Ten. 

From the SEC, Ramsey is looking at 8-4 Tennessee, 7-5 Kentucky, 7-5 Georgia and 7-5 Arkansas.

Iowa vs. Arkansas? Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz vs. former Iowa assistant and player Bret Bielema?

Lots of fans — and executives — would love that matchup.

“Absolutely,” Ramsey said. “You look at that, and you look at who you could pair with whom that creates a unique story or ... media angle that spices it up a little bit.”

So, what happens?

ESPN unveils the New Year’s Six matchups during an 11 a.m. Sunday broadcast. That knocks over a final set of dominoes, which allows the rest of the bowl lineup to be sorted out over the next few hours.

By Sunday night, Ferentz and Barta will meet with reporters to answer questions about a matchup they learned about that afternoon.

The three most likely options they’ll be discussing: Iowa vs. Florida for the third time in the Outback; Iowa vs. Washington State (as predicts) in the Holiday; or, yes, Iowa vs. Stanford. 

But (there's that word again) in the unpredictable world of college football and its complex bowl procedures, it’s all a gray area … until it becomes black and white.

And, perhaps, Cardinal vs. Black and Gold.


In order of Big Ten selection (all times Central):

Outback Bowl — Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla. (Noon, ABC); SEC opponent (likely Florida or LSU)

Holiday Bowl — Dec. 27 in San Diego (6 p.m., ESPN); Pac-12 opponent (likely Stanford or Washington State)

Music City Bowl — Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn. (2:30 p.m., ESPN); SEC opponent: (Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Arkansas in the running)