This was somewhat of an innovative season for the BCS. In an attempt to save its reputation and prove the system benefits college football, the Bowl Championship Series is offering a fairly exciting bowl season and a myriad of firsts for college football.
For the first time ever, the top 10 teams in the final BCS standings will be the 10 teams in BCS games. And for the first time in history, two non-"Big Six" conference teams—Boise State and TCU—will play in a BCS bowl, although it's a Fiesta Bowl matchup that most didn't have in mind.
But what the Orange Bowl did may be the most impressive because, unlike many of the bowls this season and in the past, they brought a new criterion to the table: fairness.
For the Iowa Hawkeyes, 2009 has been a roller-coaster from start to finish. The season began with two consecutive blocked field goals to beat Northern Iowa, then included a 21-10 thrashing of Penn State in Happy Valley and a heartbreaker in Columbus with a freshman quarterback leading the way.
Call it luck, call it clutch, or call it both, but Iowa's 10-2 season has been one to remember, and a BCS berth seemed to be on the horizon.
Although it looked like Iowa had earned a berth to the BCS, speculation swarmed that Penn State would jump Iowa in the selection process and the Hawkeyes would head to the Capital One Bowl—a good bowl nonetheless but a meager consolation prize for an outstanding season.
At first, the prospects looked good for Iowa, as the Hawkeyes appeared Fiesta Bowl- bound, but when it became clear that the Fiesta would try to pit undefeated Boise State and TCU against each other, the outcome looked glum.
Many experts thought that if the Fiesta Bowl selected a second Big 10 team, they would choose Iowa, while the Orange Bowl would choose Penn State if given the chance.
But the Orange Bowl proved the experts wrong by doing the "unthinkable" and passing up the TV ratings and tradition of Penn State for the Hawkeyes. Why? Because they won on the field.
To the casual college football fan, this shouldn't come as a surprise. In every other sport, the team that wins out on the field gets to play for more glory, but college football's bowls are a business, and selections are typically based more on ticket sales and TV ratings than wins and losses.
The Orange Bowl broke the trend and remembered what football is truly about.
“[Penn State was] in the conversation, but basically (Iowa) took care of business up in Happy Valley and were higher ranked,” said Orange Bowl representative Larry Gauntier. “Iowa was always on the front burner with us."
The Orange Bowl's "unanimous" decision to take the Hawkeyes seems to be a step in the right direction for the BCS. Finally, at least some of the system is changing from a financial decision to a football decision.
And the Orange Bowl knows it will be a great game. Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi will be back for the game after suffering an ankle injury against Northwestern, and Iowa's elite defense will take on the triple option offense at Georgia Tech.
But while the matchup and merit certainly played a major role, the financial aspect was certainly still part of the decision. Iowa's bowl TV ratings haven't been great historically, but because of the team's exciting finishes this season, the 2009 ratings have been very high.
The Hawkeyes' fanbase also has a reputation for traveling well to bowl games—an aspect that likely put teams like Boise State and Cincinnati out of the running and certainly made the Orange Bowl's decision much easier.
“We had 48,000 Hawkeye fans in Miami [in 2003]. We anticipate that number, or maybe a little more this year,” Gautier said. “Georgia Tech we think is going to get their allotment, 20 to 25,000. Hawkeye nation will take up their difference.”
While Penn State may not have matched those numbers, they still would have been able to sell the stadium out and easily could have been chosen above the Hawkeyes. But in the end, the Orange Bowl looked to Sept. 26 and Iowa's win where it really mattered—on the football field.
“We had an experience with Iowa; a very positive experience,” Gautier said. “The Bowls are a reward system. This team has overcome tremendous adversity this year. They’ve continued to persevere all the way through. At the end of the day, we thought that perseverance, that commitment, needed to be rewarded.”