We're calling it right now. Write it down. If Iowa goes 13-0, Iowa will be in the College Football Playoff. Period.
We won't say Iowa's initial No. 9 ranking matters. It's that it barely matters. It matters that Iowa's ranked, obviously, that what the team has already done is at least of significant merit. But the difference between No. 9 and 8—or 7—or—6—on and on down the line—is not, at this point, significant.
There are, necessarily, losses coming ahead of Iowa. No. 2 LSU must face No. 4 Alabama, and the loser is a near-lock to miss the SEC Championship Game, an absolute kiss of death in the final Playoff standings (technically, the winner of the game could go on to lose two conference games, but that's straining the limits of plausibility at this point). No. 3 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan State are in a similar situation in the B1G East. And then there's the matchup of No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 TCU with a de facto claim to the Big XII on the line. Stanford is behind Iowa at No. 11, but the Cardinal faces No. 5 Notre Dame; both teams have an early loss, and a second for either would be effectively fatal to their Playoff chase.
As Matt Hinton pointed out, the correct way to think about the CFB Playoff is not in terms of what the ranks are now, nine weeks into a 14-week season, but in terms of who'll eventually be selected:
Again, the actual pecking order: 1. Clemson 2. Bama/LSU/Florida 3. TCU/Baylor/Oklahoma/Ok. State 4. Ohio St/Michigan St/Iowa 5. Stanford/ND— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) November 4, 2015
If it seems simplistic to reduce this to ranking by conference champions, think again; here are the selection committee's own stated criteria for differentiating between similar teams:
When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:
- Championships won
- Strength of schedule
- Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
- Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)
The very first criterion* is conference championships. Notre Dame cannot win one. Iowa can. All four of the 2014 Playoff teams were conference champions. After (and only after) Ohio State vaulted over TCU and Baylor, whose conference insanely refused to grant either 8-1 team the outright championship, despite the very motto of the conference being "One True Champion."
From there, criterion #2 is strength of schedule, and while Iowa might get dinged here as its schedule slumps down the stretch, it also stands to get a boost from the Northwestern-Wisconsin game in two weeks; a Northwestern victory boosts the standing of Iowa's victory that much more, while a Wisconsin victory just might leave both teams ranked in the Playoff Committee's Top 25 (Northwestern, at only No. 21, might not survive the third loss, but its Good Victories will keep it nearby).
More broadly, strength of schedule is mostly defined by conference strength, as the conference slates comprise 66-75% of teams' regular seasons (and more after conference championships, obviously), so it makes sense to slot tiers of Playoff teams by conference more than whether, say, you think Clemson and Ohio State are on a higher level than everyone else.
We can acknowledge the obvious. Most, if not all, Power 5 conference champions will face tougher conference slates than Iowa does... in the regular season. But there's really no reason to discuss Iowa in these terms unless and until Iowa has won the Big Ten—which is to say, not until an absolute crown jewel of a victory against either Ohio State or Michigan State on a neutral field. And this is not contingent on OSU or MSU being undefeated, either; recall that when the Buckeyes boat-raced Wisconsin, the Badgers were only ranked No. 13 in the CFB Playoff going into the game.
The broadest point is this: Iowa would be a 13-0 Power 5 conference champion, having played a legitimate conference title game and two Power 5 non-conference foes, one of which will be going to a decent-to-quite-decent bowl (and the other of whom is, uh, Iowa State). There are hypothetical situations in which a 13-0 Power 5 team doesn't make the Playoff. Unless everyone in the Big Ten collapses and nobody anywhere else does, this isn't shaping up to be one of them.
This is all moot if Iowa loses any of its upcoming games, obviously. Iowa doesn't have the standing to absorb a late unranked loss or not win the Big Ten. But if the Hawkeyes win, they're in.
*You could argue, I suppose, that these criteria are not numbered and could be applied in any order. Perhaps. But if/when four criteria are listed, only one is yes/no and all the candidates that made it check off as "yes," I'm going to go ahead and say it's the most important.