IOWA CITY, Iowa — A season that began with high expectations quickly has fallen into a year of fading hopes for the Iowa football program.
With three games to go, the Hawkeyes are 5-4 overall and 3-3 in Big Ten play. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota all are 4-2 in league play, while Northwestern also is 3-3. Mathematically, Iowa remains alive for the West Division title, but to project that outcome is like believing Santa Claus will bring you the winning Powerball ticket. That’s about the same chance I give the Hawkeyes of beating Michigan this week.
Scouts from three different bowls will attend Saturday’s game, including the Big Ten-affiliated Citrus Bowl and Orange Bowl. (Not sure why the Russell Athletic Bowl scout is here except to tag along with the Citrus Bowl pal.) It’s unlikely either are watching Iowa.
But Lloyd Christmas in “Dumb and Dumber” raved about his one-in-a-million shot with Mary Swanson, so let’s break down Iowa’s remaining possibilities from winning the lottery to barely backing in.
Winning the lottery
Dream big, Hawkeye fans. The last three times Iowa has faced Michigan at Kinnick Stadium, it won. The last time it played a top-three team in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes won that game, too. So let’s give you the miracle scenario: Iowa upsets Michigan on Saturday, then wins at Illinois and wraps up the season with a home win against Nebraska. All the agony from mid-September through early November is wiped from the minds of positive Iowa thinkers.
RECORD: 8-4, 6-3 Big Ten
WOULD IOWA WIN THE DIVISION? Only if Wisconsin happened to lose twice. Wisconsin plays Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. The only reasonable possibility is a home loss to the Gophers, whom the Badgers have beaten 12 consecutive years. Northwestern, which beat Iowa at Kinnick Stadium and is tied with Iowa in Big Ten play, plays the same three schools. A three-way tie with Wisconsin and Northwestern would oust the Hawkeyes in that scenario. So would a two-way tie. So it could happen if the Badgers forget their cleats a couple of times this month.
LIKELY BOWL LOCATION AT 8-4, 6-3: Holiday Bowl. Under the Big Ten’s initiative to diversify postseason destinations, secondary bowls are required to take five different teams over a six-year period. This is the third year under that edict. That would rule out the TaxSlayer Bowl (two years ago) and probably keep the Outback Bowl (three years ago) at arm’s length, although that game wasn’t played under the current arrangement.
Only a borderline miracle would lift the Hawkeyes past Michigan on Saturday. So instead of holding out hope for an unlikely scenario, let’s look at the next-best possibility. After Michigan, Iowa faces Illinois and Nebraska in its final two home games. Should the Hawkeyes prevail against their border foes, they would end the season on an uptick and allow them to keep three of their four rivalry trophies.
RECORD: 7-5, 5-4 Big Ten
WOULD IOWA WIN THE DIVISION? If Wisconsin loses three games, and Minnesota, Northwestern and Nebraska each lose two. So, no.
LIKELY BOWL LOCATION AT 7-5, 5-4: Under this scenario, Iowa would sit around sixth among the eligible bowl teams. Before the Big Ten took control of bowl bids, Iowa often jumped past Big Ten competitors because it brought more fans. That’s not the case anymore, and certainly not in a disappointing season.
If you project highly ranked Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the College Football Playoff/Rose Bowl/Orange Bowl/Cotton Bowl, that likely sends Nebraska to the Outback (the Citrus is vacated if a Big Ten team goes to the Orange). Then it’s between Minnesota and Iowa for the Holiday. I’d say the Holiday is likely, considering Iowa beat Minnesota. If not, then either the Foster Farms (San Francisco) and Music City (Nashville) bowls will be likely destinations.
Once again, we’re ruling out a win against Michigan. Then Iowa becomes bowl eligible at Illinois, but falls in the home finale against Nebraska. That would mark five straight home defeats and a loss in the Hawkeyes’ second consecutive trophy game. The appetite for a bowl game would range from undesirable to nonexistent, but the Hawkeyes still would have to go, per Big Ten rules.
RECORD: 6-6, 4-5 Big Ten
WOULD IOWA WIN THE DIVISION? If the Big Ten dissolved the divisional structure and gave everyone a divisional title trophy.
LIKELY BOWL LOCATION AT 6-6, 4-5: At best, Iowa could land in the second-tier of bowl games. That includes the Foster Farms (San Francisco), Music City (Nashville), TaxSlayer (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Pinstripe (New York). Those bowls make a bid to the Big Ten office, which also discusses the situation with the school. Iowa wouldn’t compete in the TaxSlayer Bowl because it “sort of” showed up there on Jan. 2, 2015 in a 45-28 loss to Tennessee. The Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit) and Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dallas) also could be in play.
Worst-case scenario. Iowa loses all three games, including a road trip at Illinois. The Hawkeyes finish with a losing record. Would they consider a bowl at 5-7 if their APR (Academic Progress Rate) is high enough and not enough teams are bowl-eligible? I doubt it. First of all, that would mark five straight losses to end the season. The school might struggle to give away bowl tickets, let alone sell any. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta repeatedly has said he’d prefer only teams with winning records compete in bowls. Nebraska and Minnesota did it last year, but I think Iowa would put away the pads at 5-7.
RECORD: 5-7, 3-6 Big Ten
WOULD IOWA WIN THE DIVISION? Only if multiplication was involved, too.
LIKELY BOWL LOCATION AT 5-7, 3-6: The Home For Christmas Bowl sponsored by losingseason.com.