Iowa bowl analysis: There's considerable Holiday hope, but it's shakier than you might think

Danny Lawhon
Hawk Central

I'm not sure the tired cliche "the more things change, the more they stay the same" has a sinister reflection: like Wario to Nintendo's Mario, Bad Janet to "The Good Place's" regular Janet, or any number of the soap opera industry's evil twin tropes.

But the more things are going to plan in the Big Ten Conference's bowl picture, the murkier they are seeming to get.

We've had a semblance of definition for the 9-3 Iowa Hawkeyes' bowl fate for a few weeks now, ever since their Nov. 16 victory over then-unbeaten Minnesota. Win out, and generally expect to go to an upper-tier game.

The news has been looking up, too, as far as getting three Big Ten squads into either the College Football Playoff or New Year's Six slate of bowls — another sign that Iowa would be shoved into the Holiday Bowl at worst for the first time since 1991.

Games have gone as most have expected. Ohio State took care of Penn State and Michigan; Wisconsin won the Big Ten West with an impressive showing against the Golden Gophers; the Hawkeyes held serve against Illinois and Nebraska.

So why, with just the conference championships left to play, does there seem to be so much uncertainty among experts as to where the conference's solid football crop will be spread?

In our final examination before Sunday's bowl selections, we'll take a look, and offer our best guess as to whether you can indeed pack your bags to San Diego.

Where everyone stands now + Big Ten pecking order

With championship weekend to go, here's the lay of the College Football Playoff land among Big Ten teams relevant to this discussion:

  • 1. Ohio State (12-0)
  • 8. Wisconsin (10-2)
  • 10. Penn State (10-2)
  • 14. Michigan (9-3)
  • 16. Iowa (9-3)
  • 18. Minnesota (10-2)

One last time, here's the Big Ten's bowl selection order outside of the Playoff and New Year's Six:

  • Citrus (Orlando, Florida)
  • Outback (Tampa, Florida)
  • Holiday (San Diego)
  • Music City (Nashville, Tennessee) or Gator (Jacksonville, Florida)
  • Pinstripe (New York)
  • Redbox (Santa Clara, California)
  • Quick Lane (Detroit)
  • First Responder (Dallas)

And here are the upper bowls' restrictions if they follow the conference's guidelines:

  • Citrus: Things hinge on if a Big Ten school is also selected for the Orange Bowl. If so, the conference is out of this game. Penn State played here last year, so a repeat would not be preferable, though it is technically allowed.
  • Outback: Cannot pick Wisconsin, 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. Iowa and Penn State ought to be off the board.

The things we (should) know

Ohio State is in the College Football Playoff. No, nothing is ever guaranteed, but the Buckeyes look to be so far above the rest of the Big Ten that a loss to Wisconsin on Saturday night in Indianapolis would be stunning. Even if the Badgers' do pull off the upset in the rematch of Oct. 26's 38-7 shellacking, the odds appear in the Buckeyes' favor to stay in the committee's top four.

Minnesota saves major logistical headaches by playing in the Outback Bowl. P.J. Fleck's 10-2 bunch might be the lowest-ranked of the Big Ten's top six now, but given the Outback's choices, the Gophers are a perfect (and "legal") fit.

The two things Iowa fans should root hardest for

1. Most important is an SEC team in the Orange Bowl. The Orange Bowl concept is simple: This year, the highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten team not already assigned to another contractually obligated game gets a spot against an ACC side in Miami.

Those obligations are important in this discussion. Each Power Five conference champion has an automatic New Year's Six tie-in (during years in which a playoff game isn't on tap there). This season, those obligations are:

  • Big 12, SEC: Sugar Bowl
  • Big Ten, Pac-12: Rose Bowl
  • ACC: Orange Bowl

Substitutes have to be found when those conference champions are in the four-team playoff.

In most cases, there are clear replacement options. At this point, here's a look at the top 16 in the CFP rankings, and who they're playing Saturday, if applicable:

  1. Ohio State (12-0) vs. Wisconsin
  2. LSU (12-0) vs. Georgia
  3. Clemson (12-0) vs. Virginia
  4. Georgia (11-1) vs. LSU
  5. Utah (11-1) vs. Oregon
  6. Oklahoma (11-1) vs. Baylor
  7. Baylor (11-1) vs. Oklahoma
  8. Wisconsin (10-2) vs. Ohio State
  9. Florida (10-2)
  10. Penn State (10-2)
  11. Auburn (9-3)
  12. Alabama (10-2)
  13. Oregon (10-2) vs. Utah
  14.  Michigan (9-3)
  15. Notre Dame (10-2)
  16. Iowa (9-3)

For example, provided Ohio State beats Wisconsin, a replacement will be chosen for the Rose Bowl. Same would go for LSU and the Sugar, and Clemson and the Orange. The Big 12 and Pac-12 slots are in flux because of the uncertainty regarding that fourth playoff spot if the top three take care of business.

So who's available? Utah, Baylor and Oklahoma — Nos. 5 through 7 — are out of this discussion because of conference affiliations. And if No. 4 Georgia beats LSU in the SEC championship game, both the Bulldogs and Tigers appear likely for the playoff.

If that happens, current No. 9 Florida would likely move into the automatic Sugar spot and they're out of the Orange discussion, too.

That leaves Wisconsin, who faces Ohio State but likely won't drop too far in the rankings unless they get blasted again, and Penn State as the next two Orange options. Whichever of them isn't in the Rose Bowl will probably go.

That'd be bad news because such a scenario eliminates the Big Ten from Citrus Bowl consideration. Then, even with three teams in the New Year's Six and playoff, you're staring down a Michigan vs. Iowa showdown for the Holiday Bowl. There's reason to be uneasy about that arrangement, which we'll explain in a bit.

If LSU defeats Georgia as expected? The Bulldogs drop out of the top four, but not too far, thus taking the Sugar. Florida won't be dropping, and they'll grab the Orange. Either Penn State or Wisconsin goes to the Rose Bowl, and the other is in at-large New Year's Six contention.

2A. Hope Wisconsin has a respectable showing against Ohio State. The Georgia element is more important to "ensure" Iowa minimal competition for the Holiday spot. But if Wisconsin gets torched for a second time, the punishment from the committee could be enough to knock the Badgers out of the New Year's Six discussion and into a likely Citrus Bowl landing spot. Then we're back at square one with the whole Michigan-Iowa dilemma. Remember, only the top 10 in the CFP rankings are essentially secured spots. There are six games, yes, for 12 teams. But the ACC gets a place at the table (presumably Virginia, barring Clemson falling on its face), and so does the highest-ranked team not from a Power Five conference.

2B. What if Wisconsin wins? Well, the Badgers would be in the Rose Bowl, and again, most folks think Ohio State is a playoff lock, win or lose. Then Penn State becomes the third team to consider for New Year's Six placement. Great news, but we're still back in the Orange Bowl scenario requiring an SEC team to be eligible first. That's why the LSU game will be more of a determinant.

If these things happen …

In other words, three Big Ten teams in the New Year's Six with the Citrus Bowl still open … life's good. Iowa and Michigan compete for two desirable bowl slots, the Citrus and the Holiday. The Citrus probably takes Michigan, and Iowa gets its long-sought jaunt to SoCal. And if Iowa goes to the Citrus Bowl, that's a prestigious alternative. It surely beats the snot out of the Gator or Redbox. 

If these things don't happen ... 

In other words, only two Big Ten New Year's Six teams, or the Citrus Bowl being unavailable, then we're almost certainly looking at Iowa and Michigan in direct competition for the Holiday Bowl, with less prestigious consequences for whoever isn't chosen.

Who would win a potential Holiday sweepstakes?

That's tough. Two 9-3 teams. Two teams currently two spots apart. Two teams who haven't been to the Holiday Bowl in at least a quarter-century (1994 for Michigan). 

Michigan owns a head-to-head win and is the bigger blue blood. Those are problems for Iowa, although that October 10-3 triumph for the Wolverines was by no means impressive or resounding.

Fan sentiment is an important factor, too. And Iowa fans have spoken, Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville said on Wednesday.

“Please take Iowa. That is what we’re hearing pretty loud and clear from the Iowa faithful," he told columnist Chad Leistikow. So yes, Hawkeye fans are excited. What about Michigan fans, though? In a year where the Wolverines fell considerably short of Big Ten title implications, is apathy accurate?

"I will say we’re hearing (positive feedback) from the Michigan people here,” Neville added on the heels of his Iowa comments.

From the bowl's standpoint, Neville said it is definitively down to Iowa and Michigan, and that the game can't go wrong.

“For us, this is a dream. These are the two schools we have hoped to get. This is our last time for the foreseeable future,” Neville said. The Big Ten's bowl contracts change next year, and the Holiday is on the outs.

For what it's worth, the San Diego Union-Tribune is taking the temperature of the situation, too, and seems to think Michigan is the team the Holiday folks would rather select if given the choice.

The only real conclusion here: We've got quite the Saturday in store.

If the Holiday picks Michigan, where will Iowa end up?

I won't rehash Big Ten protocol, but suffice it to say this: If the conference's guidelines are followed, it'll almost certainly be the Redbox Bowl. If it's rules be damned, the Gator Bowl will swipe Iowa in a heartbeat.

What the experts say

Jerry Palm, CBS Sports: Holiday, vs. Arizona State (Michigan to Gator)

Erick Smith, USA TODAY: Redbox, vs. California (Michigan to Holiday)

Mark Schlabach, ESPN: Gator, vs. Kentucky (Michigan to Holiday)

Kyle Bonagura, ESPN: Redbox, vs. California (Michigan to Holiday)

Brett McMurphy, Stadium: Holiday, vs. Arizona State (Michigan to Citrus)

Danny Lawhon works across the Register's sports department, from social media and sports wagering to bowls, brackets and data dives. Reach him at or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.

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