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Iowa football bowl projections: A long-awaited Citrus return is on the table


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Say the phrase “Tate to Holloway” to a longtime Iowa Hawkeyes football fan, and the memory floodgates quickly open up. Most can remember exactly where they were when it happened, who they were with and the extreme jubilation.

It's hard to believe it has been nearly 17 years since Drew Tate’s last-gasp pass hit Warren Holloway in stride for a 56-yard touchdown to end the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005, a play that stunned Nick Saban in his final game as LSU's coach.

It’s also hard to believe that Iowa hasn’t been back to that Orlando bowl game — now known as the Vrbo Citrus — since. Wisconsin and Michigan have been to the Citrus three times since Iowa was last there; even Nebraska has gone twice. In that same stretch, the Hawkeyes have been to the Outback Bowl in Tampa five times.

More: What channel is Iowa football vs. Nebraska? How to watch Hawkeyes' game against Huskers

Is this the year for a Citrus return?

As things stand today, the Citrus is probably the most likely landing spot for Iowa. But there are still numerous possibilities as the 9-2 Hawkeyes prepare for Friday’s regular-season finale at 3-8 Nebraska (12:30 p.m., Big Ten Network). The Huskers will play without starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, who will miss the game with a shoulder injury.

“We’re going to shoot as high as we can. Citrus would be great, because we haven’t been there in a while,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said over the weekend. “But if it ends up being the Outback, we’ll be thrilled to go there, too. … Let’s finish strong, and the opportunities will take care of themselves.”

Below is a look at the possibilities that still exist for the Hawkeyes, sorted by the order of selection. We'll find out Iowa's bowl fate Dec. 5. (Note: The Big Ten Conference’s bowl lineup is slightly different than in 2019, with the newly added Las Vegas Bowl selecting after the Outback and before the Music City. )

Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

When: Jan. 1, 4 p.m. CT (ESPN)

Opponent: Pac-12 champion

The case for Iowa: The Big Ten champion or the league’s highest-ranked non-playoff team secures a trip to Pasadena. If the Hawkeyes win Friday and Minnesota beats Wisconsin on Saturday, they would reach the Dec. 4 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis against the East Division winner.

Would the Hawkeyes have a realistic shot against Ohio State? Probably not. But don’t assume the Buckeyes will be waiting in Indy. Michigan (10-1) might have something to say about that Saturday in Ann Arbor. And, in my opinion, if Iowa could get to Indy and face a Michigan team coming off an emotional and overdue win against its fiercest rival, the Hawkeyes would have a puncher’s chance.

It's a major long shot, yes, and if Iowa actually beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, it could have a playoff argument. But the Rose is probably Iowa's ceiling. Utah will face Oregon, Oregon State or Washington State in the Pac-12 title game.

More: Leistikow: Hawkeyes don't look like a 9-2 team, but they are one. That's worth appreciating

Other New Year’s Six game: Fiesta or Peach

When: Peach Bowl is Dec. 30, 6 p.m. (ESPN) in Atlanta; Fiesta Bowl is Jan. 1, Noon (ESPN) in Glendale, Arizona.

Opponent: At-large selection.

The case for Iowa: The New Year’s Six matchups are set by the College Football Playoff committee and would require Iowa to at least crack the top 12 after the conference championship games. A win against Nebraska is a must, obviously, to even have a chance.

Other things that would benefit the Hawkeyes’ New Year’s Six hopes: That the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC get only one spot each in the lineup. If, say, Oklahoma or Oklahoma State runs the table and forces its way into the four-team playoff (at the Cotton and Orange bowls this year), the Big 12 would be assured a second team with its tie-in to the Sugar Bowl.

A Mississippi State win over 9-2 Ole Miss on Thanksgiving Night would help, too. So would a Michigan State home loss to Penn State on Saturday. If the Spartans fall to 9-3, then a 10-2 Iowa could make a case as the third-strongest Big Ten team … especially if Wisconsin suffers a fourth loss via the conference title game.

Let’s say Iowa ekes into the New Year’s Six. The best guess here is it would be assigned a matchup against the ACC champion, a la the Hawkeyes’ 2009 season. Notre Dame (10-1) would be a possibility, too.

Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

When: Jan. 1, Noon (ABC)

Opponent: SEC at-large

The case for Iowa: The Citrus gets its first pick of a Big Ten team after the New Year's Six is set. If the Hawkeyes are 10-2 or even 10-3 (after a Big Ten title-game loss), there's a decent chance they'll be seen as the league's No. 4 team behind Ohio State, Michigan and either Michigan State or Wisconsin. That puts them in the Citrus wheelhouse.

There were two Citrus Bowl scouts at Iowa's 33-23 win against Illinois. If the Citrus folks have a choice between 10-2 Iowa and 9-4 Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes would probably have a pretty good shot despite the head-to-head loss Oct. 30 in Madison. 

Iowa would be on a four-game win streak in that scenario, and a reunion with the Hawkeyes would certainly stir up the Tate-to-Holloway memories in a positive and marketable way.

The opponent would be intriguing, too: Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss? Mike Leach and Mississippi State? Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M? Mark Stoops and Kentucky? All are possible Citrus teams at this moment and would offer great story lines.

Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

When: Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN2)

Opponent: SEC at-large

The case for Iowa: If the Citrus doesn't pan out for the Hawkeyes, they are always welcome in Tampa. Iowa has been to the Outback six times under Kirk Ferentz, most recently three years ago with a 27-22 win against Mississippi State.

The Outback would find the 10-2 Hawkeyes hard to resist, but it might pass on a 9-3 team especially if an 8-4 Penn State is available. (The Nittany Lions haven't played in Tampa in 11 years.) The roster of possible opponents is basically the same as the Citrus. Throw Arkansas in there, too.

For what it's worth, Action Network's Brett McMurphy has Iowa vs. Kentucky in the Outback in his latest projection.

More: Iowa football's season of extremes still can finish among Kirk Ferentz's most noteworthy

Las Vegas Bowl

When: Dec. 30, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Opponent: Pac-12 at-large

The case for Iowa: Who wants to celebrate the new year in Vegas? Newly opened Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders, is the venue. The Vegas opportunity won't come along often, as it is taking a Big Ten team in 2021, 2023 and 2025 under the current six-year agreement (The Duke's Mayo Bowl got Wisconsin last year and is in this spot in 2022 and 2024). 

The Hawkeyes probably don't make it to Vegas' choice unless they lose to Nebraska. And yes, you read that kickoff time correctly — but, hey, who needs sleep in Vegas? A matchup against Chip Kelly and 7-4 UCLA would be pretty enticing. The Hawkeyes and Bruins last met in the 1986 Rose Bowl.

Music City Bowl in Nashville

When: Dec. 30, 2 p.m. CT (ESPN)

Opponent: SEC at-large

The case for Iowa: While back-room deals with bowl games are no longer the way of doing business, the emotional element between Iowa and the Music City would give this game some appeal. Hawkeye fans have long enjoyed the idea of driving to Nashville for a bowl trip. And after Iowa's Music City date last year got wiped out by Missouri's COVID-19 issues, there might be some mutual interest in bringing the Hawkeyes back.

That said, the Music City is essentially reserved for a mid-pack Big Ten team. Landing here would be quite a disappointment in the prestige department, considering Iowa was 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country less than six weeks ago.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.