IOWA CITY, Iowa - An Iowa football regular season that ended with a thud also concluded in fitting fashion - with a frustrating overtime loss to Nebraska Friday. Adding insult to defeat, the Huskers fired their coach three days later, their AD saying they didn't beat any championship-caliber clubs.
Ouch. That hurts.
Several well-known national and regional analysts tabbed the Hawkeyes as dark-horse candidates to win the Big Ten West Division. The fan base displayed even more optimism thanks, in large part, to a favorable schedule and many key players returning.
Not all 7-5 seasons are created equally and this one pulled at the heart strings of the Hawkeye faithful. The nasty taste left by a Week 3 home loss to lowly Iowa State lingers among bitter pills swallowed at Maryland and Minnesota, classified by head coach Kirk Ferentz as extremely disappointing defeats. Nausea remains following teasing setbacks against Wisconsin and Nebraska to finish November.
Iowa football lacks any momentum right now. To gain traction, it must win its bowl game. A sixth loss would further split a fractured fan base and weigh negatively in recruiting.
Some Hawkeye backers have bailed. A postseason victory, for them, just delays change they want for a program they believe is headed in the wrong direction under its current leadership. They can stop reading now if they haven't already.
A lot of people still care. They're searching for positive propulsion into the fall of 2015, when, once again, they'll dream of their team climbing to the top of the mountain.
A bowl win against an opponent that matters lifts some of the lethargy currently residing in Black and Gold territory. Beating a name school from another Power-Five Conference adds good vibrations.
Projecting where that might be isn't easy. The Big Ten's new bowl partnerships and the conference's desire to control where its member schools go makes it more difficult to handicap where teams will end up.
Iowa's history shows it playing in "better bowls" than maybe its on-field performance merited thanks to a strong fan following making it attractive to the event and its city. That might not be as likely to happen with this new setup. Time will tell.
This year's destination probably will be determined by combining performance and attractiveness to the bowl partners. That could help the Hawkeyes, who, based on worthiness, would rank, at best, seventh among conference schools. A case could be made for Rutgers rating ahead of them.
The Orange, Citrus and Outback Bowls are off the table for Iowa. The Holiday Bowl also appears out of reach. With that in mind, let's take a look at other possibilities we might like:
1. Arkansas in the Music City Bowl: The rumor mill churned Wednesday with Nebraska targeting Razorbacks Coach Bret Bielema for its opening. Then, reports defused them. Let's hope the latter are accurate. Nashville is within driving distance of Iowa, Bielema would be asked, incessantly, about his Hawkeye tattoo and Ferentz would answer questions about what happened with A.J. Derby. It holds all the drama we love. The reward would be a spark heading into '15. The risk would be losing to a good Arkansas team and Bielema, creating more turmoil.
2. Georgia in the Music City Bowl: Not quite the juice that a Bielema battle would bring, the Bulldogs offer a national brand. Defeat them and the Hawkeyes recapture momentum heading into signing day and spring practice.
3. USC in the Foster Farms Bowl: Iowa gets another shot at the talent-rich Trojans after being embarrassed in the Orange Bowl following the '02 season. The Bay Area location also serves as a fresh and exciting stop for the Hawkeye fans. It's expensive, though, and that could cut into attendance.
4. Ole Miss in the Taxslayer Bowl: One could argue that this would be a better victory for Iowa than one against Georgia. The Rebels certainly represent a tougher challenge. Jacksonville rates as a pretty drab location, however, and Hawkeye fans might be worn out on Florida. The Jan. 2 date makes travel more difficult as well.
5. Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl: It represents another shot at a program with name recognition. This would be a lot more attractive if Bob Bowlsby still were the Cardinal A.D. but the Hawkeyes aren't really in a position to complain about a match-up with a highly-regarded program in an NFL Stadium.