Is the Nebraska game effectively Iowa's bowl game this year? It's not literally Iowa's bowl game, obviously -- at 7-4 (7-5 at worst) they're going to be headed to one of the Big Ten's bowl tie-ins over the holidays. And it's not Iowa's "bowl game" in the sense that, say, Minnesota's game with Iowa last year (or this year, for that matter) was a "bowl game." But is it the biggest, most meaningful game left on the slate for Iowa?
Iowa's not going to be playing for a Big Ten title this year -- Michigan State locked up the division title last week. They're not going to be backdooring into a BCS at-large slot (duh). And even at 8-4, there's enough of a glut of teams ahead of them in the Big Ten that getting to one of the Big Ten's best non-BCS bowls (i.e., the Capital One or Outback Bowls) is pretty damn unlikely. Some combination of Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Penn State (maybe) seems certain to fill those bowls.
So where will Iowa be bowling? Possibly back in Arizona at the Insight Bowl or in Jacksonville at the Gator Bowl, or maybe in Texas at either the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas (in Houston) or the Ticket City Bowl (in Dallas). Getting that 7th win against Purdue last weekend probably moved Iowa out of the bottom tier of bowls for Big Ten teams this year (i.e., the Pizza Pizza Bowls and whichever bowls have leftover spots, like the New Mexico Bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl). Who might Iowa face in one of those games?
GATOR: They have 6th choice among SEC bowls and there's a fairly clear pecking order among SEC teams right now. Alabama and LSU seem destined to rematch in the national title game, which would fill up the league's two BCS berths. Arkansas probably heads to the Cotton Bowl then, with Georgia and South Carolina filling up the Capital One and Outback Bowls. That leaves the Chik-Fil-A and Gator Bowls duking it over the likes of Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee. A game with Auburn would continue Iowa's off and on tradition of playing recent national champions in bowl games (and give us a month to make Gene Chizik jokes, which would be fun), while a Florida game would be a chance to avenge the slight of the 2006 Outback Bowl. Still, neither game exactly gets the blood flowing that much.
INSIGHT: They have the 4th choice among Big 12 bowls and things are a bit up in the air until we see if that league can send two teams to the BCS (a possibility that took a bodyblow with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State's losses to Baylor and Iowa State last week). If they send just one, then the loser of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game and Kansas State probably head to the Cotton and Alamo Bowls in some order. That leaves the Insight sorting between the likes of Baylor, Texas A&M, and Texas to fill that slot. Texas has brand-name value and, like Florida, would give Iowa an opportunity to avenge a past bowl loss (2006 Alamo Bowl ahoy!), but it's hard to get too excited about playing the current dessicated Texas program. Baylor might end up being the highest-ranked team Iowa could play in a bowl; if they win out, they might sneak into the top-15.
MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS: They have the 6th choice among Big 12 bowls, so you're looking at basically the same lot of teams listed above, plus the likes of Missouri, Iowa State, and maybe Texas Tech. Iowa already beat a superior Missouri team last year; who wants to see a rematch now? An Iowa State rematch would be intriguing -- but only to people inside the state of Iowa. We'll get another crack at them next September. Texas Tech was a semi-frequent bowl opponent for Iowa in the late 90s/early 00s, but there's no real history there, nor is there much intrigue with this current Red Raider squad (which needs to beat Baylor this weekend to even have a shot to go bowling).
TICKET CITY BOWL: Their official tie-in is with Conference USA, but C-USA doesn't specific a pecking order the way the SEC, Big Ten, and Big XII do. Other than the Liberty Bowl taking the C-USA champion, it appears to be a bit of a free-for-all among the remaining bowls with C-USA tie-ins. At the moment only four C-USA teams are bowl eligible, although there will be at least five after this weekend (5-6 East Carolina is playing 5-6 Marshall). Still, if Houston wins out and grabs a BCS bid, that will leave four (maybe five) C-USA teams picking and choosing between six bowls. Those teams would be (drumroll please)... Tulsa, Southern Miss, SMU, and either ECU or Marshall (and maybe UTEP). An exciting bunch, eh? In the event that they can't grab a C-USA team, The Ticket City Bowl's safety school option is the Big XII, so basically just recycle the list of options from the Meineke Car Care Bowl, with an emphasis on the teams at the bottom of the list (Missouri, Iowa State, Texas Tech).
Call me jaded, but Iowa's experienced enough success over the last decade that the only bowls that have an inherent excitement factor are the BCS bowls. The Capital One and Outback Bowls are nice but they, like any other bowl, depend a lot on the matchup to generate a lot of excitement. Iowa lucked out last year by landing a game against Missouri, a border rival Iowa hadn't played in a hundred years that also happened to be pretty high-profile (#12 heading into the game). The odds of that happening again this year are pretty slim. In all honesty, they're probably going to have a difficult time cracking into either the Insight or Gator Bowls, given the travel reputations of the teams in front of them (and the potential for an Ohio State-Florida matchup in the Gator, which ESPN is probably already slobbering over, especially if Urban Meyer is the new OSU coach by then). Baylor might be the lone ranked team Iowa could play in a bowl this year and they may not fall to the Meineke Bowl. The likes of Auburn, Florida, and Texas all have a lot of juice in terms of name value, but is there that much to be gained from beating a Tiger, Gator, or Longhorn squad that already has 5-6 losses?
Which brings us back around to the Nebraska game. Is this, in a way, Iowa's real "bowl game"? Sure, a win in a fourth straight bowl game would be nice... but given who the likely opponents in that game are, wouldn't a win over Nebraska be considerably sweeter? Like Iowa, they're also eliminated from the Big Ten title race, so there's no chance to spoil their title ambitions and though they're ranked, that ranking has taken a hit with losses to Northwestern and Michigan in the last three weeks. If they lose to Iowa they'll likely fall out of the rankings entirely. But even if this isn't a vintage Nebraska team (and it, um, isn't -- by any stretch of the imagination), a win over them would still feel like a fairly big moment.
Seasons tend to be remembered by moments and while the really good seasons are a collage of many moments (2002, 2004, 2009), even the lesser seasons have their standouts (coming back against Michigan in 2003, spoiling Barry Alvarez Day at Wisconsin in 2005, The Kick Heard 'Round The (College Football) World against Penn State in 2008, eviscerating Michigan State last year). Beating Nebraska -- in Lincoln, in the teams' first-ever game as Big Ten rivals, with a trophy on the line (albeit a pretty bland trophy), for the first time in 30 years -- well, that would resonate. Right now this looks like a pretty forgettable season with the crowning highlight being the win over Michigan a few weeks ago.
This is also the opening salvo in what is potentially Iowa's biggest rivalry over the next few years and decades. The Wisconsin rivalry was sacrificed on the altar of conference expansion and with all due respect to the efforts of Paul Rhoads and Jerry Kill to rebuild their respective programs there's a juice that Iowa-Nebraska has that Iowa-Iowa State and Iowa-Minnesota just can't match. All the "Who hates Iowa" chants in the world can't obscure the fact that Minnesota really measures themselves against Wisconsin and until Iowa State can win more games against teams not named Iowa and legitimately contend for the odd championship (and, to be fair, beating Oklahoma State last week is a mighty fine start on doing just that) they're going to feel more like persistent nuisances than genuine rivals.
So, yeah, a win on Friday would taste mighty fine -- finer than I can imagine any bowl win tasting in a month. I want an Iowa because I want something good to remember about this season. I want an Iowa win because I want to see Iowa win a goddamn rivalry game again (0-4 since the ISU game last year, not counting #THERIVALRY with Purdue last week). I want to see Iowa players celebrating with a trophy again (even a mediocre-looking one). And I want to be able to stick it to Nebraksa fans for a year. This game is personal for me, moreso than any other on the schedule. I live among Minnesota fans (nominally), but they tend to be so apathetic about Gopher football that it's sometimes hard to work up much enthusiasm over those wins. I grew up around Nebraska fans. I loathed them then and I loathe them now. So screw a bowl game. I'll try to work up the enthusiasm for one in a few weeks but right now it's all about Nebraska. And I want this win.