IOWA CITY, Iowa – The last few generations of Iowa football fans haven’t experienced what it’s like to play Notre Dame. While the schools met 23 times from 1939-68, they haven’t faced off since that run.
There’s a general dislike for the Fighting Irish nationally based on their overall success, independence and perceived feeling of superiority, kind of like the Yankees and Cowboys. The Hawkeye faithful occupy space among that group.
Believe it or not, a strong rivalry existed between the two Midwestern programs through much of the ’50s and into the 60’s. The Hawkeyes won five of six meetings between ’56-61. But it’s a loss that’s occupied the largest space in the history of the series.
A 14-14 tie on Nov. 21, 1953 earned Notre Dame the nickname of "The Fainting Irish." The team from South Bend, IN was said to have faked injury to stop the clock and allow it more time to score.
Where am I going with this history lesson? Well, a new generation of Hawkeye fans might again have a gripe with Notre Dame at this season’s end despite them not meeting on the field.
While it’s far from a likely scenario, it’s possible. It’s one of various ways this campaign could shake out.
First, Iowa must win its remaining five regular season contests and then the Big Ten Championship game to be in the College Football Playoff Discussion. A loss and the Rose Bowl becomes the top goal.
So, say the Hawkeyes run the table and reach 13-0, which we all saw coming before the season, right? Are they definitely in college football’s final four?
Answer: It’s not a lock as of now.
Iowa would be the Big Ten’s candidate. It most likely will have beaten Ohio State or Michigan State in the conference title game after one of those team’s topped the other in the regular season. There’s a chance that the Buckeyes could lose to Michigan and beat the Spartans, causing anarchy in the East Division but that wouldn’t change anything for the Hawkeyes if it beat whomever emerges from that side.
Now, we look out of league for the playoff competition. With five Power 5 conferences, at least one will be left out of the mix as happened last year to the Big 12’s Baylor and TCU.
Let’s look at the Big 12 first:
–Baylor appears to have the toughest road with games at unbeaten Oklahoma State and TCU along with home contests versus one-loss Oklahoma and surging Texas. The Bears also have a starting quarterback with a broken neck.
–TCU, as mentioned, plays host to Baylor and also has dates remaining at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
–Oklahoma State, as pointed out, plays host to Baylor and TCU along with Oklahoma plus a contest at dangerous Texas Tech.
Outlook: While you can see there are plenty of potholes for the Big 12 contenders to remain unscathed, for the sake of this exercise, let’s say one of them does it. My money is on TCU. So, we’ll put the Horned Frogs in the playoff leaving three openings.
Next up is the SEC:
–LSU sits in the driver’s seat as the conference’s lone unbeaten. The Bayou Bengals will enjoy a bye week now before heading to one-loss Alabama on Nov. 7. They also travel to Ole Miss and play host to Arkansas and Texas A&M. They’ll only play 11 regular-season contests after having their opener against McNeese State canceled due to weather.
–Alabama is next in the SEC pecking order and can leap frog LSU by beating the Tigers in two weeks. The Tide faces a tricky matchup at Mississippi State still and finishes with the Iron Bowl at Auburn.
–Florida remains on the outside looking in for a playoff berth. Regardless, a one-loss Gator squad that didn’t face Alabama and lost to LSU would be unlikely to jump over unbeaten Iowa for a playoff berth unless it were to beat one of those teams in the conference title game. That could make things interesting.
Outlook: It’s hard to imagine the SEC experiencing the Big 12’s fate of a year ago of being left out of the playoff. It looks like it will be either LSU or Alabama unless they each have two losses and the Gators beat one of theme in the championship. For us, let’s say one of these schools grabs a final four spot leaving us with two openings.
Let’s look at the ACC:
-Coming off a complete demolition at Miami that put in the final nail in ‘Canes Coach Al Golden’s coffin, Clemson looks really strong. The Tigers travel to five-win N.C. State on Saturday, which could be tricky, before playing host to one-loss Florida State. After games against Wake Forest and Syracuse, they head to rival South Carolina. Should they navigate that slate unbeaten, they’re looking at Pittsburgh, North Carolina or Duke in the conference championship game.
–Florida State could make a case for the playoff if it ran the table, which would include a win against Clemson, and then winning the league title contest to get to 12-1. From where they stand now, however, it seems unlikely the Seminoles would jump over an unbeaten Iowa.
Outlook: As mentioned, Clemson looks to be by far the class of the ACC. It gets FSU at home and while road games at N.C. State and South Carolina aren’t lay-ups, the Tigers should be strong favorites. We’ll project them to finish unbeaten and grab our third playoff spot.
That brings us to the PAC-12:
–Stanford leads the way out West after USC dropped Utah from the ranks of the unbeaten. Despite having a loss, like Alabama, the Cardinal appears to be in position to snag a playoff spot away from an unblemished Iowa. That would go over like a lead balloon in Big Ten country.
Stanford lost 16-6 at Northwestern to kick off the season. The Hawkeyes dismantled the Purple Cats, 40-10, Oct. 17. The Cardinal was ranked two spots ahead of Iowa in both major polls this week and could be there when the first playoff standings are released on Nov. 3.
It’s not an easy road for Stanford, who’s at upstart Washington State this Saturday and also plays host to Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame to finish the season. The Cardinal then could face Utah in the conference championship game.
-Speaking of Utah, the Utes are an example of how the timing of a loss can cripple your postseason possibilities. They sit at No. 13 now and climbing back into the playoff picture, despite having the same amount of setbacks as Stanford and Alabama, will take quite a few stumbles from teams in front of it. They’ll need to run the table, including winning the Pac-12 title, to have a shot.
Outlook: Could the 13-member playoff selection committee pick a 12-1 Stanford ahead of 13-0 Iowa? Man, it wouldn’t seem like it could based on the outcome of their games against Northwestern. But it’s a concern when you consider that voters in the Coaches and AP polls are siding with the Cardinal. I think an unbeaten Hawkeyes outfit would be chosen ahead of one-loss Utah.
Now we circle back around to Notre Dame:
-Like Stanford, the Irish rank ahead of Iowa in both major polls despite having one loss. Unlike the Cardinal, Notre Dame has a better case on paper with its setback coming at unbeaten Clemson and not to a Northwestern team the Hawkeyes smoked by 30 points.
As we said, the Irish finish up at Stanford in what could turn out to be an elimination game should each team win out until it. And if that’s the case, it will receive a lot of national attention.
To get to that point, Notre Dame faces a manageable, but not easy, lineup. It’s at No. 21 and unbeaten Temple this Saturday and then at No. 23 Pittsburgh a week later. The Irish will be heavily favored against Wake Forest at home and on the road at Boston College before heading to Palo Alto.
Outlook: A one-loss Notre Dame team should worry an 13-0 Hawkeye squad and its fans more than one-loss Stanford. Face it, like it or not, the Irish are college football royalty and it carries weight. Their lone loss will be at Clemson by two points, which they could get more credit for than Iowa would in beating Purdue, North Texas, Illinois State, Iowa State or Maryland.
Conclusion: I first should point out that this piece is filled with speculation, perceptions and hypotheticals, if you missed it. With so much of the season remaining to be played, it’s really all we can do at this point. In doing so we realize that unexpected outcomes occur in sports every day.
With that point made, it’s interesting to ponder Iowa’s road to the college football playoff and incredibly awesome that we can do it at this stage in the season. As one who enjoys conspiracies and naturally worries (a stressful combination at times), however, Iowa being left out behind Notre Dame, and to a lesser extent Stanford, represents a reasonable fear. As much as we hope the selection committee is objective, preconceived notions can foster subjectivity.
In the end, an unbeaten Iowa would play in the Rose Bowl, worst case, possibly against Stanford. That’d be fun and memorable. It couldn’t take all the sting away from being bypassed for the playoff, though. And my guess is it would cause quite an uproar among the Hawkeye faithful and national talking heads who feast on controversy.