After Iowa’s biggest football goals of the 2018 season faded, they had to recalibrate. One of their targets after falling to 6-4 with a humbling 14-10 loss to Northwestern on Nov. 10 was to win out, including a bowl game, and be ranked in the final top 25.
Well, the Hawkeyes did all they could do to achieve that goal. They smoked Illinois 63-0. They showed grit in finishing off rival Nebraska 31-28. Then on Tuesday, they pulled a 27-22 upset of No. 18 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl to finish 9-4 for the season.
After the game, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was confident that his Hawkeyes would be recognized by pollsters.
“Our seniors, to go out with another good season, finished up with nine wins, four trophies this year and should be a top-20 football team,” Ferentz said. “That’s something they can be very, very proud of.”
But will the Hawkeyes reach top-25 status? If they do, they’ll become just the seventh Ferentz team out of 20 to do so.
How about top 20?
We’ll find out soon. The final Associated Press poll should come out in the wee hours Tuesday morning, following Monday night’s championship game. The Amway Coaches Poll comes out later Tuesday.
Let’s examine how high the Hawkeyes could go — and what’s realistic — with focus on the coaches’ poll, which the Register defers to in its articles. Iowa entered the bowl season as the sixth team in the “others receiving votes” category — 31st overall, essentially. (It was tied for 32nd by AP; not much different.)
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First, there is little to no chance Iowa is ranked ahead of these 17 teams: Alabama (14-0), Clemson (14-0), Ohio State (13-1), Notre Dame (12-2), Oklahoma (12-2), Washington State (11-2), Georgia (11-3), Florida (10-3), LSU (10-3), Kentucky (10-3), Michigan (10-3), Syracuse (10-3), Texas (10-4), Washington (10-4), Texas A&M (9-4) or Northwestern (9-5). I’d throw Central Florida (12-1) in here, too, just because the Knights were No. 7 before their non-blowout loss to LSU.
That means the absolute best-case scenario for the Hawkeyes would be 18th, which is exactly where defensive end Chauncey Golston thought they deserved — since they beat the team ranked 18th in Mississippi State. No doubt, Iowa’s beating the Bulldogs was one of the more impressive upsets of the bowl season. And it should be rewarded.
But with what ranking?
Let’s look at teams that Iowa could make a case for passing in the coaches’ poll:
No. 12 Penn State (9-4) — The Nittany Lions did beat the Hawkeyes head-to-head at Beaver Stadium, 30-24. That was their best win. Penn State was down 27-7 in the fourth quarter before rallying in a Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.
No. 16 West Virginia (8-4) — Iowa beat a team (Iowa State) that manhandled the Mountaineers. Without Will Grier, they were trucked by Syracuse, 34-18, in the Camping World Bowl.
No. 18 Mississippi State (8-5) — Obviously.
No. 19 Utah (9-5) — Might fall out of the top 25 after losing to the Big Ten’s Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.
No. 21 Fresno State (12-2) — While the Bulldogs beat unranked Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl, this was probably their best win. They lost to Minnesota, a team Iowa defeated on the road.
No. 23 Utah State (11-2) — The Aggies’ 52-13 bowl win against North Texas is impressive, but a competitive loss to Michigan State (which finished 7-6) doesn’t look that great now.
No. 24 Boise State (10-3) — The cancellation of the First Responder Bowl will probably hurt the Broncos, who were trailing Boston College when the game was called.
No. 25 Army (10-2) — A team that pushed Oklahoma to overtime and enjoyed a 70-14 rout of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl might be tough for Iowa to hop.
Iowa will certainly pass three teams ahead of them in the “others receiving votes” category (Iowa State, North Carolina State and Missouri) and should jump the two that won (Cincinnati, Appalachian State).
The Hawkeyes also moved up to 10th (from 17th) in Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings, a reflection of how good Mississippi State was — if voters look at those kind of metrics when casting their final ballots.
At minimum, the Hawkeyes should finish 23rd. I’ll put their ceiling at 19th.
So, for a final prediction, let’s go with 21st.
Now, go enjoy that Clemson-Alabama title game (again). It should be a good one.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.