Iowa made some of the biggest headlines in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, jumping up from No. 9 to No. 5, putting the undefeated Hawkeyes on the cusp of landing a spot in the sport’s final four.
But here’s the big question: With Iowa’s very own big movement in the rankings this week, should we assume the Hawkeyes are in if they win out, or should we expect the rankings — and Iowa’s place in them — to be this volatile week to week?
Here are the facts. Iowa is one of five undefeated teams from Power 5 conferences, along with No. 1 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 Oklahoma State. Ranked ahead of the Hawkeyes, however, are a pair of one-loss teams in No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Notre Dame. One-loss teams like Stanford, LSU, Florida and Oklahoma lurk not too far behind.
The big key to the whole thing is going to be strength of schedule. The committee didn’t seem impressed with Iowa’s eight wins a week earlier, when the Hawkeyes debuted as the No. 9 team in the first rankings of the season, even though road wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin are looking better as the season goes on, bolstering Iowa’s resume. But however the committee feels now that Iowa has nine wins, it’s doubtful victories in the remaining regular-season games against Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska will change that opinion.
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Surely, no matter what plays out, many of the other teams ranked ahead and around Iowa will have better wins by the end of the regular season. That’s what makes the Big Ten Championship Game so important. No matter who the Hawkeyes play — and of course we’re assuming that Iowa will beat all those sub-.500 teams left on the regular-season schedule and win the Big Ten West — it will be their biggest game and best opponent of the season. Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan can all still win the Big Ten East.
Only three of those aforementioned five undefeated teams can possibly finish their seasons undefeated. Even if Iowa and Ohio State win out in the regular season, they’ll square off in the Big Ten title game. And the two undefeated Big 12 teams are set to meet on Nov. 21.
So if Iowa wins out, are they one of the four teams to make the Playoff?
You’d have to think the answer is yes, but it’s not as obvious as “undefeated Big Ten champ” sounds at first blush.
If you’re going by the current rankings, the Hawkeyes would slide into the place vacated by the Buckeyes should they beat them in the Big Ten title game. But if one-loss Alabama wins out, the SEC-champion Tide probably wouldn’t drop below the Hawkeyes.
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What about Notre Dame? Would wins over Stanford, Navy and Temple and a loss to Clemson be better than Iowa’s wins over Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin with no losses? I don't think so. If Iowa wins out and Notre Dame wins out, I think the Hawkeyes would jump the Irish.
But the Big 12 could be a different story. If either Baylor or Oklahoma State wins out, that team will boast wins over not just the other but TCU and Oklahoma, as well. That would probably be enough to leapfrog the Hawkeyes. The debate about whether the Big Ten or Big 12 is the better conference is moot because even if the Big Ten is the better league, Iowa would have only played one of the three best teams from the Big Ten East, while an undefeated Big 12 champ would have played — and beat — all the good teams in the conference.
So, to recap, if the teams currently ranked in the top six all win out — with the exception of Ohio State losing in the conference title game — the College Football Playoff could look like this: No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Baylor, with Iowa and Notre Dame fighting for the No. 4 spot. The Hawkeyes, once gaining a win over the Buckeyes, would likely have a better resume and a slight edge over the Irish, who have the nation’s most “quality” loss, to Clemson.
So, if the Hawkeyes do nothing but win, are they in? It seems likely.
But as Michigan State taught us last weekend, winning games you’re supposed to win isn’t always the easiest thing. And, oh yeah, Ohio State is pretty darn good, too.
All a team can ask for, however, is the opportunity to control it’s own destiny. Iowa appears to have that opportunity. Now it’s about seizing it.