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Bowlapalooza 2015/16: Rose Bowl Preview—Iowa Hawkeyes vs Stanford Cardinal

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This landmark season will not end quite the way the Iowa Hawkeyes and their fans had hoped, but second place, in this case, is pretty damned good too.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The 12-1 Iowa Hawkeyes will travel to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena where they will take on the 11-2 Pac-12 champion Stanford Cardinal in what promises to be a paragon of lunchpail, old-school manball.

Where is this bowl game?

The historic Rose Bowl (the stadium, not the bowl game) is located in Pasadena, California, which is, according to Google Maps, 21 miles northeast of Los Angeles. To give a point of reference, that is about the same distance as Iowa City to Mount Vernon; or Des Moines to Cumming, Iowa, population 475 according to Bestplaces.net.

Therefore, Los Angeles is to Pasadena as Des Moines is to Cumming.

When is this bowl game?

January 1, 2016. The kickoff will be at 4:10 PM, Central Time.

Who is in this bowl game?

12-1 Iowa Hawkeyes vs 11-2 Stanford Cardinal (that's Cardinal, singular).

The Hawkeyes are the B1G West champion, ranked No. 5 by the College Football Playoff (CFP) Selection Committee. They come into the game following their first loss of the season, to B1G champion, Michigan State, which won on a last-minute touchdown. The argument against Iowa all season has been its soft regular season schedule, which featured only one team ranked in the CFP's Top 25—Northwestern. However, good teams take advantage of weak schedules. That's the way it's always been, and Iowa has been no different.

Stanford is the Pac-12 champion, ranked No. 6 by the CFP Selection Committee. The Cardinal's losses come at the hands of Northwestern (more on that later) and Oregon. Their biggest win of the year was over Notre Dame, a 38-36 thriller that the Cardinal won on a 45-yard field goal in the final 30 seconds.

While both teams would have liked to have been in the CFP, both should have high morale and bring their best to the Granddaddy of all Bowls.

What's in it for the participants?

For Iowa, it starts with the Rose Bowl itself. The college football landscape is changing, and the CFP now trump any individual bowl in terms of prestige. Still, as a B1G team filled with players who mostly grew up within the B1G footprint, this game, the Rose Bowl, has special meaning. If Iowa wins, it will be the first time since 1959 that the Hawkeyes have won what is historically the B1G's most prestigious bowl. For more points of reference, the President of the United States in 1959 was Dwight David Eisenhower.

Beyond winning the game itself, it will further extend the winningest season in school history, pushing the total to 13. It will also cement head coach Kirk Ferentz's legend, as he would have done something his legendary predecessor, Hayden Fry, never did: win the Rose Bowl. With this win, Ferentz would not only be able to name his departure terms when he does retire, but he will do so fully embraced by the fans. This couldn't have been said only six months ago. Furthermore, Iowa will silence most doubters with a win over a nationally recognized quality opponent. Lastly, the Hawkeyes will head into 2016 heavily favored to win the B1G West and will likely begin the year in the Top 15 in most polls.

For Stanford, it's pushing further into the national prominence that Jim Harbaugh initiated but that head coach David Shaw has fully brought to fruition. The Cardinal have had double-digit win seasons five of the last six seasons. In that time, they have been to four Rose Bowls (including this year's) and one Orange Bowl. They have won three outright conference championships and four division championships. Again, most of that success has been under Shaw, not Harbaugh. In short, a win cements Shaw's and Stanford's place among the college football elite, and like Iowa, puts the Cardinal in the top 15, if not top 5, to start next year.

What's in it for the fans?

Kind of the same as the team, though within a different context. Iowa fans have made it clear how much a win in Pasadena would mean. The fans "took over" Indianapolis for the B1G title game, and all indications are they are doing the same in Pasadena.

Unlike the last time Iowa experienced anything approaching this sort of success—2002-2004 and again in 2008-2009—the fans are well aware that this season does not mean Iowa is on the verge of college football's elite. But they can once again have confidence in their coach, and confidence that the immediate future is trending up.

Oh, and it's frigging cold here (I'm in southern Wisconsin, one state north of Iowa). The fans who made the trip are basking in 60° weather. They'll have to come back to the Midwest sooner or later, but a win should keep them warm through February.

For Stanford fans, it's another rung up the ladder for a program they have every reason to be proud of.

Bullet points that don't fit the above but should fill in the details

  • Iowa and Stanford have never, ever, ever played. Not even once.
  • The last time Iowa was in the Rose Bowl was 1991. As previously mentioned, Stanford has been there three of the last four years.
  • Erstwhile Iowa athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, left Iowa City to become AD at Stanford. He has since left Stanford to become the Big 12 commissioner.
  • Three Iowa Hawkeyes had Stanford offers coming out of high school: senior center Austin Blythe, senior safety Jordan Lomax and redshirt freshman defensive end Matt Nelson. Meanwhile, four Cardinals had Iowa offers: senior running back Remound Wright, senior defensive end Nate Lohn, sophomore Solomon Thomas, and sophomore Mr. Everything Christian McCaffrey.
  • Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey was the runner up to the 2015 Heisman Award and might be the best individual, all-around, dominant player Iowa has faced since maybe Terrelle Pryor in 2009. Iowa has faced other dominant players since that time—Montee Ball last year comes to mind—but most of them had one thing that they did really well. McCaffrey does everything—run between the tackles, run in space, catch the ball out of the backfield, run the Wildcat formation, return punts and kicks, even pass occasionally. And he does everything really well.
  • Hawkeye fans, remember when every off-season brought worry that Kirk Ferentz was leaving Iowa for any number of NFL head coaching positions? That is where Stanford fans find themselves now with David Shaw. For proof, google "David Shaw NFL."
  • Stanford and Iowa have one common opponent: Northwestern. Stanford lost 16-6 to the Wildcats, while an injury-plagued Iowa stomped the Cats 40-10. Therefore, by law of transference...no, not really. Firstly, the Cardinal that no-showed in Evanston is nowhere near the same Cardinal that showed up the rest of the season. Secondly, it's kind of like how Iowa has flopped whenever it has traveled to the state of Arizona (2004 and 2010). One has to account for the time zone difference and jet lag. It doesn't excuse the no-show, but it is a relevant issue that is difficult to account for in-season.
  • Stanford guard Joshua Garnett won this year's Outland Trophy given to the nation's best interior lineman, which is a vague term, but basically, it's the Heisman Trophy for offensive linemen and defensive tackles. Last year's winner was Brandon Scherff, an Iowa Hawkeye.
  • Iowa has its own award winner in Desmond King, who won the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation's best defensive back. This is the first time an Iowa defensive back has won this award. However, King's greatest opportunity to make an impact in the bowl might be in the return game. King was third in the B1G in punt return average and second in kickoff returns.
  • Stanford will have been to the Rose Bowl 15 times. This is the second-most appearances in the Pac-12 (behind USC). Its first appearance was in 1902. Its overall record in the Rose Bowl is six wins, seven losses and one tie.
  • Iowa will have been to the Rose Bowl six times, which is the (surprisingly) fourth-most appearances in the B1G (behind Michigan, OSU and Wisconsin). Its first appearance was in 1957. Its overall record is two wins and three losses.
  • If you like sloppy games, then this is not the game to watch. Stanford ranks seventh nationally with 12 turnovers lost. Iowa ranks 14th with 14 turnovers lost.
  • An overlooked area will be kickoffs. Iowa kicker Marshall Koehn will need to boot it deep into the end zone as often as possible, as McCaffrey ranks eighth in the country in kickoff return average. Luckily, Koehn is well equipped for this task; he has the 17th most touchbacks in the country.
  • This is the first time since 2008 that Iowa has put up over 30 points per game (PPG). In fact, it is Kirk Ferentz's second-most productive offense, after 2002.
  • This is the first time since 2011 that Stanford has allowed more than 20 PPG. In fact, at 23.3 PPG allowed, this is statistically the worst defense that David Shaw has coached.
  • Both programs rank among the top FBS academic schools in the country, according to Washington think tank New America (article published by Time). Stanford ranks third while Iowa ranks 18th.
  • Both teams boast one Academic All-American. McCaffrey for Stanford and Lomax for Iowa.

The pick

Iowa needs to take a three-headed approach to winning this football game.

  1. Limit McCaffrey. This starts with the Iowa offense. The Cardinal defense is not dominant and Iowa can grind the ball when it has to. The Hawkeyes want McCaffrey off the field; it is the only way they will be able to limit his touches. They want their defense rested when it has to contain him. They're not going to stop him, but the Hawkeyes will lose if the Iowa offense puts the Iowa defense in the same position it was in against Michigan State in the B1G Championship Game.
  2. Win the special teams game. That includes limiting Christian McCaffrey in the return game (see No. 1).
  3. Score touchdowns when the opportunities present themselves. Field goals will not be enough (again, see No. 1).
My instinct told me Iowa would lose to Pitt, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan State. Thankfully, my instinct was wrong three out of four times. My instinct again tells me that Iowa doesn't have a defensive playmaker to match up against McCaffrey. King is a big-time playmaker, but as a cornerback, he won't have that much to do with the sophomore running back.

But this is bowl season, and I'm a homer, so I'll say Iowa wins 34-31. The Hawkeyes block a field goal that turns out to be the difference. Win or lose, this game will come down to who controls the ball in the third quarter.