IOWA CITY, Iowa — For the first time in what feels like forever, Iowa’s football program rationally could examine its postseason options and make a decision from a position of strength.
A 3-game winning streak to close out a chaotic 2016 season netted the Hawkeyes their fifth invitation to the Tampa-based Outback Bowl on Sunday. In the process, the bowl selection elevated the sizzle between Iowa and border foe Nebraska.
Perhaps no team eyes the Outback Bowl as a target before the season. Such was the case for both the Cornhuskers and Hawkeyes, who battled for the Big Ten West Division crown. But as the teams’ top goals slip away, the Outback Bowl seemed a likely destination for Nebraska. The proud program and fan base never had played in Tampa but since 2009 had traveled three times to the next bowl in line, the Holiday in San Diego.
Even after Iowa’s 40-10 curb-stomping of the Huskers in the regular-season finale, it appeared logical for the Outback to invite Nebraska (9-3). After all, the Hawkeyes had made four previous trips to Tampa since 2003. Plus they sported the inferior record, 8-4. The Big Ten’s semi-new policy of shifting around teams and locations made Iowa’s first trip to the Holiday Bowl in 25 years a near-certainty. Legendary coach Hayden Fry is a member of the Holiday Bowl’s Hall of Fame and took the Hawkeyes to San Diego three times from 1986-91. Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville said he wasn’t taking Nebraska this year. It appeared a convenient tradeoff.
But something happened along the way. The Outback carries a higher profile and gains the better selection. Based on experience, Outback Bowl president Jim McVey knew Iowa fans would travel to Tampa. McVey wanted the better team, something Iowa proved emphatically against the Cornhuskers.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also knew what he wanted. He coached in two of Fry’s Holiday Bowls and loved those trips. But his experiences in Tampa were special. From a practical standpoint, the Hawkeyes could better balance academics and bowl preparation with the Outback’s Jan. 2 date than the Holiday’s Dec. 27 kickoff.
Had Iowa preferred the Holiday Bowl trip, it would have gotten it, athletic director Gary Barta said. But the Outback Bowl offered everything Iowa wanted this season. Iowa picked the best bowl for itself, period.
“The reason why they were selected this year — and we know a lot of people wanted them in their bowl game — is the way they finished,” McVey said. “The way those guys hung together, the way these guys went after Michigan, who’s an excellent football team also, beat Michigan and played Nebraska and really took it to Nebraska. You get a team that’s hot like that, that can play with any team in the country and we’ve had great experiences with these guys, Gary Barta, coach Ferentz and everybody. Iowa’s got everything you want in a bowl team. That starts with the football team winning those games in the end and making everything feel right. That’s why we took Iowa.”
“I look at this thing as a reward for our players for their perseverance, their resiliency, their mental toughness and for fighting through a very tough loss and finishing strong,” Ferentz said. “If anybody told us five weeks ago, four weeks ago, eight weeks ago that we’d have a chance to be in the Outback Bowl, we’d have just been ecstatic. Especially me, I guess I’ve had that experience. A lot of our players, a lot of our older guys know what it’s going to be like. A lot of our guys don’t. So it’s going to be a treat because it’s such a first-class bowl. Great exposure, ABC TV. A tremendous opponent. It’s all so positive.”
Ferentz wouldn’t say it, nor would anyone expect him to do so, but knowing the Hawkeyes leaped past the Cornhuskers for a desired bowl bid had to make him snort. The border series between the teams — for the love of this great nation can we finally call it a rivalry? — has gained intensity since it was forged on Black Friday in 2011. This provides it with even more spice.
In 2014, Iowa appeared atop the Holiday Bowl wish list. With 20 minutes to go and a 17-point lead on Nebraska, the Hawkeyes just needed to close out the game. Instead, the Cornhuskers rallied, won in overtime and earned the Holiday nod. Iowa uncomfortably slid on Selection Sunday to the TaxSlayer Bowl, a game where the team performed so far below standard it acquired the nickname “HawkSlayer Bowl.”
Two days after Nebraska’s resilient win, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired coach Bo Pelini. When asked whether the comeback had any effect on his decision, Eichorst said, “Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment, so it did play a factor. But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
Sunday, the Outback Bowl offered its own evaluation of Iowa and Nebraska. For this year at least, it chose Iowa to meet Florida. Because of Nebraska’s recent travel to the Holiday Bowl, the Cornhuskers fell to Nashville’s Music City Bowl to play Tennessee. That provided a little satisfaction to the Hawkeyes.
“It’s always good when you can beat rivals at anything,” senior RB LeShun Daniels said. “This happened to be bowl selection so obviously we’re satisfied with that to go to, I guess you can call it, a better bowl game than what they are at.”
When Nebraska and Iowa played at Kinnick Stadium on Black Friday, no playoff invitation was at stake. Both teams are playing SEC teams in their opponents’ home states in mid-tier bowl games. In the grand scheme of college football, this situation will have as much lasting power as a pass interference call on a touchdown catch. But both teams and their fan bases know the Hawkeyes took something the Cornhuskers wanted. In the real world of rivalries, that’s how sizzle turns into steak.