Iowa bowl analysis: Laying out Iowa's paths to the Holiday Bowl

Danny Lawhon
Hawk Central

Proponents of the whole "rules are made to be broken" theory could be watching this year's Big Ten Conference bowl process in fascination.

The glut of good-but-not-elite teams at the top of the league is setting up for a potentially intricate exercise when it comes to finding postseason slots for its bowl-eligible teams.

As I discussed last week, Iowa needed to beat Minnesota to have any real shot at an upper-tier bowl game. And, with its proverbial back against the wall, the Hawkeyes delivered.

They're up to 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten, with two winnable games against Illinois (6-4, 4-3) and Nebraska (4-6, 2-5) remaining. 

So … what's feasible now? There's a potentially easy answer, and then a (much more) complicated one. Let's spell it all out.

The Big Ten pecking order

As a refresher, here is the hierarchy the conference has in the final year of its current affiliation agreement. This order follows any Big Ten school selected for either the College Football Playoff or a New Year's Six bowl game and includes which teams bowls shouldn't be able to pick if everyone is playing nice.

  • Citrus: No set rules, because things hinge on if a Big Ten school is also selected for the Orange Bowl. If that's the case, then there won't be another one placed here. It would be looking beyond Minnesota, Michigan or Penn State to avoid a repeat selection if it can, but will probably have reason to make whatever choice it needs.
  • Outback: Cannot pick Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa or Michigan.
  • Holiday: No limitations. Of note, the bowl picked Minnesota in 2016 and Wisconsin in 2017.
  • Music City/Gator: Should be a Gator year, and the Gator cannot repeat picks. That means no Iowa or Penn State. 
  • Pinstripe: No limitations, but must select six schools in eight years, with the "goal" being eight schools in eight years. Penn State, Indiana, Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin have already participated.
  • Redbox: No limitations. Of note, the bowl picked Indiana in 2016 and Michigan State in 2018.
  • Quick Lane and First Responder: No limitations.

Where everyone stands now

With the season 10 games in, let's consider the upper-echelon Big Ten Teams based on their most recent College Football Playoff ranking.

  • 2. Ohio State (10-0)
  • 8. Penn State (9-1)
  • 10. Minnesota (9-1)
  • 12. Wisconsin (8-2)
  • 13. Michigan (8-2)
  • 17. Iowa (7-3)

Most of these teams are going to be beating up on each other soon. A minimum of four losses are almost assured to be incurred among this group between now and bowl "selection Sunday" on Dec. 8. 

  • Penn State and Ohio State play each other Saturday.
  • Ohio State and Michigan play each other Nov. 30.
  • Wisconsin and Minnesota play each other Nov. 30.
  • The Big Ten West winner (almost certainly Wisconsin/Minnesota) and Big Ten East winner (Penn State/Ohio State) play each other Dec. 7.

In other words, some of these teams will likely drop into the same conversational level as Iowa, as long as the Hawkeyes win out, and things will get complicated.

… See ya later, Gator? 

First though, there's an Iowa-centric scenario to discuss: A loss to either Illinois or Nebraska virtually eliminates the Hawkeyes from the upper-tier discussion (Citrus, Outback, Holiday), no matter the rules in place.

What then? I've speculated a drop to the Redbox Bowl in the past, which would be the next logical landing point if the rules are followed. Other reporters and fans alike have commented on the Taxslayer Gator Bowl's affinity for the Hawkeyes, however, including representatives having visited Iowa games on multiple occasions this season. 

No, the Gator shouldn't be able to pick Iowa. But both of ESPN's reporters who are projection experts currently have the Hawkeyes slotted to that Jan. 2 game ... against Tennessee, which brings up all sorts of 2015 horrors that most fans would rather forget.

In the final year of this bowl agreement, would the Gator folks try to convince the conference to toss the rules aside and bring Iowa back to Jacksonville? It still seems unlikely to me, but the prospect is not unheard of.

The road to the Holiday

Let's say, though, that Iowa wins out as expected and reaches 9-3. They're probably in the top 15 of the final College Football Playoff ranking and in a desirable bowl placement position. The trick is, so will that other morass of Big Ten squads.

It's long been a desire for the Hawkeye program to head west to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, where the school hasn't played since 1991. Given the number of teams currently in front of the Hawkeyes, they won't reach Citrus Bowl level. And — stop if you've read this phrase before — because of the rules, the Outback Bowl is out, too. 

So the only upper-level hope remaining is this California dream. For the Hawkeyes to be the prime selection, let's start playing the placement game.

Ohio State

One has to assume there will be at least two Big Ten teams in the New Year's Six/CFP group. Ohio State is a lock in that category, unless the Buckeyes lose to both Penn State and Michigan to close the season. Even then, a New Year's Six berth may still be theirs.

Penn State

A 10-win Penn State (yes, it will beat Rutgers on Nov. 30) would be iffy to make that elite cut, unless the Nittany Lions get obliterated this Saturday. If they beat the Buckeyes, they're a lock, as they'll likely be the East's representative in the conference title game in Indianapolis. The lowest I can see this team falling is the Citrus Bowl.


If the Golden Gophers win their final two games to reach 11-1 and take the West, they'll directly or indirectly fight with Penn State for the Rose Bowl berth, pending Ohio State's standing in the playoff and the result of the Big Ten finale. The Gophers' regular-season head-to-head victory over the Nittany Lions would carry weight if it's Ohio State on the opposite side come Dec. 7.

Either way, this scenario pushes the loser of this overall tussle into the New Year's Six fray. The Orange Bowl matches an ACC team against the highest-ranked Big Ten or SEC squad that doesn't make the playoff and isn't already slotted to the Rose or Sugar Bowls. At No. 5, Alabama would currently be that option. Georgia, currently ranked fourth, would be in that discussion as well if the Bulldogs lose to presumably LSU in the SEC title game. 

Start going through the remaining playoff requirements, and one spot is open in the Cotton Bowl for a group including these two teams, Baylor (9-1) and Florida (9-2). Good luck sorting that one out. 

If Minnesota loses another regular-season game and doesn't win the West, there's a much slimmer chance at a New Year's Six game, and a bunch of scheduling headaches would go away if the Golden Gophers fell to the Outback Bowl. 

… Confused yet? Either way, there's more.


The Badgers control their own destiny to Indianapolis. Win out, and they're the representative. Their New Year's Six route is also pretty clear because they are already a two-loss team. They won't be in the discussion unless they win the conference title game, thus going to the Rose Bowl and creating chaos. Reaching the title game should secure Wisconsin a Citrus Bowl berth at worst and potentially have them in that same fringe New Year's Six discussion as Minnesota and Penn State.

Michigan, and the Iowa conflict

The 8-2 Wolverines are out of title contention. They face a spunky Indiana side this weekend before their big rivalry game with Ohio State to close the season. Jim Harbaugh has never beaten Ohio State, so why would that change now?

One should safely assume at least a third loss here, putting it on equal footing with Iowa. If the Wolverines lose both, they'll fall below everyone in this scenario and be left with Gator Bowl or Redbox Bowl scraps, because the Hoosiers (currently 7-3) could ostensibly leapfrog them, too.

But assuming the more likely scenario of a split to finish 9-3, then a truly tricky head-to-head measurement must be done. There's the 10-3 head-to-head victory over the Hawkeyes in October to consider, although neither team was impressive in that slog. Otherwise, Michigan and Iowa are in similar boats. The Wolverines haven't been to the Holiday in a quarter-century, either (since 1994). And their fan base and brand is more "national" than Iowa's.

However, would such a fan base that has been rumbling about Harbaugh's job security support and travel to an upper-middle tier bowl in a season that began with conference title aspirations? It's a fair question, and a potentially riskier proposition than an ascending Iowa team that will have won three consecutive games to finish the year. 

So, what should I root for?

Priority 1: Michigan loses out. That's the easiest scenario in which to slot Iowa to the Holiday Bowl, no matter what else happens above the Hawkeyes.

Priority 2: The Big Ten has three New Year's Six/Playoff selections. That probably only occurs if Minnesota wins the West. It could also require Penn State to beat Ohio State, although the Nittany Lions will be in the discussion at 10-2. At that point, Wisconsin and Michigan could split Citrus and Outback Bowl selections, even if rules are broken, and Iowa would go to San Diego. Or, if rules are being ignored, maybe Iowa goes to the Outback for the third time in four seasons, although I personally think that scenario would be avoided at all costs.

Priority 3: If the Big Ten only gets two spots in that group, the second can be anyone but Minnesota. For example, Wisconsin beats the Gophers, loses to Ohio State in the title game, and Penn State goes to the Rose Bowl. The Badgers would take the Citrus Bowl spot, Minnesota is easily slotted into the Outback Bowl and then the Holiday becomes an Iowa/Michigan discussion. Iowa and Michigan would be near-identical teams at 9-3 with that unconvincing head-to-head battle. The Holiday and Gator Bowls are the next two in the Big Ten pecking order. Michigan hasn't been to the Gator since 2011. If there isn't a markedly distinguishing factor, Iowa could get placed in the Holiday, Michigan in the Gator, and there's no rule-breaking blood.

And finally, if chaos reigns…

Just throw the rulebook out. We'll all be in this messy boat together, and we'll have a lot to talk about that first week of December.

What the experts say

Jerry Palm, CBS Sports: Holiday, vs. USC

Erick Smith, USA TODAY: Redbox, vs. Washington State

Mark Schlabach, ESPN: Gator, vs. Tennessee

Kyle Bonagura, ESPN: Gator, vs. Tennessee

Brett McMurphy, Stadium: Redbox, vs. Washington State

This week's games to watch

Penn State at Ohio State; Michigan at Indiana: I've explained the scenarios to death, so suffice it to say the picture will begin to solidify by this time next week.