Just when you think you're getting everything figured out, Iowa has to go and lose to Northwestern. All of a sudden, every lofty goal for the 2010 season seems like childish pipe dreams concocted by the terminally optimistic.
Obviously, the loss to the Wildcats was somewhat foretold. After all, the Hawks had lost four of the last five meetings with Northwestern coming into the game. Now we can officially make that five of the last six. Yippee.
After that loss, a couple of things have been cleared up for both the Hawkeyes and the conference as a whole.
*Updates have been added at end of article*
First, there's zero chance that Iowa will be heading to Pasadena on January 1 for a showdown with the Pac-10 champion. It was a long shot even before last weekend's debacle. Now it's out completely.
Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State are all still sitting with just one conference loss on their records. It would have taken a loss by Wisconsin to put Iowa back in the running for the Rose Bowl.
Instead of politely losing, Wisconsin decided to go out and destroy Indiana to the tune of 83-20. The Badgers still have a trip to Michigan and a home date against Northwestern, but with the way they're playing, I wouldn't bet against the Badgers in either of those games.
Michigan State had a bye this past week and still have Minnesota and Penn State on the schedule. Despite Minnesota's recent surprising victory over Illinois, there's no reason to expect them to jump up and knock off the Spartans.
Penn State is looking better than they did in the early going of the season, but even if they beat Michigan State, it wouldn't help the Hawks at all. In fact, it would only hurt their strength of schedule slightly.
Iowa could still technically defeat Ohio State this coming weekend. That would be a huge boost to a deflated program, but it wouldn't do anything at all for their Rose Bowl hopes.
Wisconsin would have to lose out and Michigan State would have to lose one more game for Iowa to have any chance at Pasadena, and that's just not going to happen. That's assuming that Iowa beats Ohio State, which is in no way a given.
Second, a BCS bowl is now out as well.
For all of the reasons listed above, Iowa is likely going to finish no better than third in the conference. The conference champ will go to Pasadena. The second place team will likely get the nod for a BCS bowl bid.
Also remember, the BCS doesn't care about conference standings. They care about overall record. In that arena, Iowa is not only one conference game behind the rest, but are also one out-of-conference loss behind them.
In other words, the Hawks would basically need two of the three teams ahead of them to lose their last two matches. Again, not likely.
What's more, if that did happen, there's no guarantee that the Big Ten would receive a second BCS bowl bid. In fact, the chances are very good that the BCS would bypass the Big Ten for a second BCS bowl in favor of a two-loss Pac-10 or Big 12 team. The SEC will already likely get two BCS bowl slots.
So where does that leave Iowa? Should fans start packing their bags for Orlando, Florida to take in a Capital One Bowl?
Well, you could, but don't count on Iowa being there.
In a previous article, I laid out the bowl games that are on the docket for Big Ten teams this year. If you haven't checked it out, you should, as there are some big changes to the Big Ten tie-ins for the 2010-2013 seasons.
The Capital One people are generally very stringent about taking the next available team with the highest win-loss percentage. They're one of the few bowls that try very hard to put competition above the potential draw of a bigger name. I respect them very much for that.
For Iowa to get an invite to the Capital One Bowl, they'd have to finish with the third-best record in the Big Ten, assuming that the conference does indeed get a second BCS bowl bid.
Considering that Iowa already has three losses on their record, they would need one of the "big three" to lose twice even to get that invite. So forget about that one, too.
Okay, so maybe fans should start saving up for a trip to Tampa, Florida. The Outback is a great bowl that always treats Iowans well.
That's not a bad bet, but could be a little early.
As Al Namias IV poignantly pointed out, Iowa's defense is a much bigger question mark than we'd previously thought. That's important, given Iowa's next opponent.
Ohio State boasts one of the most complete teams in the Big Ten. After dismantling Michigan State, Iowa has been fairly mediocre. A win over the Buckeyes is not only not a given, it's really looking very bleak.
If Iowa falters again, they can hope for no better than an 8-4 finish to the season. Michigan and Northwestern are both at 7-3 right now and Penn State is knocking on the door at 6-4. Of the three, Penn State arguably has the best chance of finishing out the year without another loss.
If the good folks at the Outback Bowl have to make a choice between 8-4 Iowa, 8-4 Penn State, 7-5 Michigan or 7-5 Northwestern, who do you think they'll take? They don't have to take an 8-4 team over a 7-5 team. They just can't take a 6-6 team above the others.
With all due respect to Northwestern, they won't get the invite. It has nothing to do with how they play football and everything to do with the fact that they don't have the fan base of the other programs and can't fill as many seats. They also aren't as big a draw on the television.
Michigan absolutely can't be ignored. If they end the season at 8-4 or even 7-5, their huge name, huge fan base, and the exciting play of Denard Robinson may be more than enough to pole vault the Wolverines over the Hawkeyes into an Outback invite.
Also, it would be tough to ignore a Penn State team that would have won two of their last three (assuming for the sake of argument that they figure out how to beat MSU), with legendary Joe Paterno having recently grabbed his 400th win, versus an Iowa team that will have lost two of their last three. Iowa travels very well, but well enough to offset what Penn State brings to the table?
So, what about the Gator Bowl?
Well, for all of the reasons I just laid out, this is something of a crap shoot as well. If the Gator has to decide between Iowa, Penn State, Michigan or Northwestern, things don't look very good for Iowa.
How about the Insight?
It's not a national championship, that's for sure. It's not the Rose Bowl either. Heck, it's not even a January bowl game (played December 31st).
But, it is the most likely destination for Iowa of all of them.
The Big Ten is a little top-heavy this year. At least one team is likely to end the year at 11-1, but as many as three teams could pull off that feat.
If only one team ends at 11-1, there's likely to be two teams that will end at 10-2. There go the top three bowl selections.
Knock out the Outback and Gator to Penn State and Michigan.
The fifth slot goes to the Insight. Iowa would likely be up against Northwestern for this selection. Again, even though the Wildcats beat the Hawkeyes in the head-to-head, bowl games aren't just about pitting the best teams against each other.
They exist largely to make money. That means, they want teams that will put butts in seats and get people to tune in on TV. Between the two programs, Iowa is better suited to do those things than Northwestern is.
The sixth selection goes to the Texas Bowl (December 29th). The seventh goes to the Dallas Football Classic (January 1), and the eighth goes to the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl (December 26).
There's no guarantee that Iowa will beat Minnesota to end the season, but there's no reason to believe they won't either. If Iowa does lose their last three games of the year, there are far bigger problems than even we prognosticators know about.
The Hawkeyes shouldn't have to worry about playing any earlier than New Year's Eve.
It's really fairly simple, though. Win out, finish at 9-3, and likely lock in a spot in the Outback Bowl. Lose one of the last two and the Hawks could fall as far as the Insight Bowl.
Lose any more than that, and some heads had better roll somewhere...
The Hawks dropped a heart-breaker to Ohio State. The best Iowa can hope for now is an 8-4 finish to the season.
With that loss, the Rose Bowl is officially off the table, as is any outside shot at a BCS bowl. The Capital One Bowl is gone as well (given the bowl's history of taking "the next in line").
That still leaves the Outback, Gator, and Dallas Football Classic as Iowa's best hopes for a New Year's bowl game. The DFC picks last of the lot, so I wouldn't expect Iowa to fall that low in the selection process.
The Outback and/or Gator Bowls are still good bets, though.
Iowa finished the regular season with a disheartening loss on the road against Minnesota 27-24. The Hawkeyes end the regular season a dismal 7-5 -- far short of their expectations for the year.
What will this do to Iowa's bowl hopes? Obviously, it's a horrible hit.
Michigan lost to Ohio State and Penn State lost to Michigan State. That leaves three one-loss teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State) at the top of the conference pile.
The next tier starts at 7-5, where Iowa is tied with Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern. Illinois is 6-5 with a game yet to play against Fresno State.
The top three will inhabit the Rose Bowl, a BCS Bowl and the Capital One. Iowa could still find a place in the Outback, but may have to give way to Penn State or Michigan.
In a nutshell, Iowa could end up anywhere from the Outback to Gator to Insight. Given that they've ended the season with three consecutive losses, it's possible they could drop yet another spot to Illinois and wind up in the Texas Bowl.
The Ticket City bowl is still out there for January, but that bowl selects after the Texas Bowl. Iowa would actually have to drop yet another spot to someone like Northwestern in order to land there.
Thanks to this last loss to Minnesota, Iowa's bowl destination is as much a toss-up as it was two weeks ago.