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Bowl Projections: Breaking Down the Possibilities for Iowa and the Big Ten

Is it down to the Outback Bowl vs. the Texas Bowl for Iowa?

Al Messerschmidt

A few weeks ago, the Outback Bowl didn't look like the most likely bowl destination for Iowa -- now it's the overwhelming consensus pick for Iowa. It was an option, sure, but a lot of things needed to go right for Iowa to make it a viable possibility for Iowa. So what happened? Pretty much everything that needed to happen for Iowa over the last few weeks has actually happened.

* Win games. Iowa needed to beat Michigan and Nebraska and they did exactly that. Hamblasting Nebraska on national TV on Black Friday had the additional benefits of a) making Iowa fans even more excited about following this team to a bowl game and b) making them look like an even better team, which doesn't hurt in the eyes of the bowl selection folks.

* Other teams needed to lose games. Specifically, Michigan and Nebraska. Iowa had a big role to play in this step, too, since they were able to play (and defeat) Nebraska and take care of business themselves. But it didn't hurt Iowa's bid for an Outback Bowl berth that Ohio State held on against Michigan and prevented the Wolverines from getting a big signature win to end the season, either.

* Two BCS teams. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are pretty clearly a cut above** Iowa (and everyone else) in the bowl selection order, so for Iowa to be a viable option for the Outback Bowl those three teams would already need to be selected... which would mean that the Big Ten would need to get two teams into the BCS. The odds of that happening look much better now.

** Friend of the Pants Marc Morehouse seems to think that Wisconsin's loss to Penn State last week creates a not-unreasonable possibility of Iowa jumping the Badgers for the Capital One Bowl, but for now he seems to be alone on an island in this regard.

So let's take a look at where the bowl projection folks are slotting Big Ten teams right now:

(click to embiggen)

Aside from ESPN's Mark Schlabach, everyone is projecting Ohio State to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and play Florida State in the BCS Championship Game. (This is not surprising, because you can't spell "ESPN's Mark Schlabach" without S-E-C. ROLL TIDE, PAAAWWWL.) While that does seem to be the most likely scenario, an Ohio State loss would probably do even more to firm up Iowa's hopes of getting into the Outback Bowl. Michigan State would grab the Big Ten's guaranteed spot in the BCS and go to the Rose Bowl, while Ohio State would be a no-brainer pick to get an at-large spot.

If Ohio State wins (and heads to the BCS title game), there's zero doubt that the Rose Bowl will grab Michigan State to fill their opening -- if Michigan State remains in the top-14 of the BCS rankings (a necessity for them to be selected as an at-large team). It's the 100th Rose Bowl this year, so you can be damn sure they want a traditional Big Ten-Pac 12 match-up if at all possible. Sparty's odds of staying in the top-14 even with a loss seem pretty good. Here are the current rankings:

10) Michigan State .6529
11) Arizona State .5833
12) Oregon .5321
13) Clemson .5201
14) Northern Illinois .4812
15) LSU .4213

That's quite a gap between where Michigan State is now and where LSU is at #15. It would be surprising if a loss sent Michigan State tumbling THAT far. Likewise, there aren't a lot of teams that are threats to rise up and jump ahead of them. UCF is currently #16 (.3858), but a win over 5-6 SMU is unlikely to give them too much juice. The lone wild card might be Oklahoma. They're sitting at #17 (.3808) and play #6 Oklahoma State this weekend; I suppose there's a worst case scenario out there in which the Sooners beat the Cowboys in their annual Bedlam game and that plus a Sparty loss allows them to move into the top 14 and kick out Sparty. But... that just doesn't seem very likely.

Long story short: the Big Ten is very well-positioned to get two teams into the BCS right now, which bumps everyone else in the league up a notch in the bowl pecking order. Right now Wisconsin is the consensus pick to go to the Capital One Bowl and they do seem like the most likely option, no matter what Mas Casa is suggesting. Iowa's two wins and strong finish to the season (especially compared to Michigan, Nebraska, and Minnesota, all of whom ended the season on losing notes), plus their strong travel reputation, has them positioned as the next-best option among Big Ten teams, which is why they're a consensus Outback Bowl team right now. It would be Iowa's first trip to that bowl since January 2009 and their first trip to Florida since January 2010 (Orange Bowl). There's zero consensus on who Iowa might play in that game, with Missouri, LSU, and South Carolina all getting tabbed. I don't know how likely it is that Missouri would fall all the way to the Capital One Bowl if they lose the SEC Championship Game, so I think LSU or South Carolina are the more likely bets here.

As for the other Big Ten bowls...

(click to embiggen)

There's more consensus here, although it's not quite universal. The heavy favorite to land in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is Nebraska, mostly so the B-Dubs Bowl can stage a Big XII reunion match-up, likely with Texas. As Morehouse notes, the B-Dubs Bowl isn't going to be affiliated with the Big Ten next year, so they're probably more interested in making sure that they get the best/most lucrative matchup possible, rather than keeping the Big Ten happy.

Michigan is also a popular pick to land in the Gator Bowl for a big brand-name matchup with Georgia. One potentially relevant note about the Gator Bowl, as noted by Jon Miller: there's scuttlebutt that they're prioritizing TV ratings this year, which would favor a team like Michigan over a team like Iowa.

Finally, the bowl projections have Minnesota heading back to the Texas Bowl to (again) take on Texas Tech. I understand why Minnesota is heading there -- a bowl isn't going to select them over Iowa, Nebraska, or Michigan (especially if TV ratings matter for the Gator Bowl) -- but I'm surprised there isn't more of a push to get someone other than Texas Tech as their opponent. Minnesota and Texas Tech played in this very same bowl game last year; I can't imagine there's much desire among their fans (or the bowl) to re-stage that exact matchup this year. Then again, it's possible that there's just no wiggle room for the bowl here; they get the sixth choice among Big XII teams and there are only six bowl-eligible Big XII teams this season. Unless the Holiday (with 5th choice among Big XII teams) grabs Texas Tech over Kansas State, the Texas Bowl may not have a choice but to take Tech. The fact that so many teams in the Big Ten (5 of 12) and Big XII (4 of 10) failed to get six wins really hurts the flexibility of the lower-tier bowls this year.

The wildcard to the bowl selection process is what happens if the Big Ten only gets one team into the BCS. As noted above, I don't think that's very likely right now -- things have lined up nicely for the Big Ten to get two teams into the BCS -- but it's not impossible. If that happens, there's a real chance that Iowa could drop from the Outback Bowl to the Texas Bowl. The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl seems very attached to the Big XII reunion idea of pairing up Nebraska and Texas (or perhaps Oklahoma) and Iowa has gone to that bowl two of the last three years anyway. The Big Ten putting just one team into the BCS would put the Gator Bowl in play for Iowa, but if their obsession with TV ratings is truthful, then it's not hard to see Michigan getting the nod over Iowa. And if that's the case, well, hello Texas Bowl.

But again: that doesn't seem likely right now. Right now the Outback Bowl seems like Iowa's most likely destination. Order up a Bloomin' Onion and throw a few more shrimp on the barbie, folks.