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Iowa State bowl analysis: Cyclones’ fate hinges on making sense of Big 12’s jumbled mess

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Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell explains his team’s 27-17 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 30, 2019.
Danny Lawhon, dlawhon@dmreg.com

Iowa State’s regular-season finale was an opportunity to cement an upper-echelon bowl game for the second straight year.

Instead of fireworks at Kansas State, the Cyclones delivered a dud.

The 27-17 loss in Manhattan was costly in the Big 12 Conference standings. Iowa State could have finished in third place alone; now, there’s a four-way logjam of 8-4 and 7-5 teams with 5-4 league records.

Will the defeat prove costly in terms of postseason positioning, too? That’s for Sunday’s array of bowl selections to decide. But there’s a lot more doubt in Iowa State’s immediate future, for example, than in Matt Campbell’s long-term one after the coach agreed to another extension Tuesday.

There’s a lot to sort through. Time to dive in.

Where everyone stands + the Big 12 pecking order 

One last time, let’s go through the exercise. If nothing else, it shows just how chopped to bits a natural hierarchy will be for this season’s bowl placement game.

  • Oklahoma (11-1, 8-1)
  • Baylor (11-1, 8-1)
  • Oklahoma State (8-4, 5-4)
  • Kansas State (8-4, 5-4)
  • Iowa State (7-5, 5-4)
  • Texas (7-5, 5-4)

That’s the lot of bowl-eligible teams in the Big 12, as well, with TCU and West Virginia both finishing at 5-7.

Once the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six matchups are decided, the league’s bowl selection process has no restrictions. Bowls generally follow the conference standings within reason, but theoretically, any bowl-eligible team could be chosen for any spot. 

And there’s no reasoning with a four-way mishmash at 5-4 in the league. That’s a nod to parity, to be sure, but mediocrity as well.

The selection order outside the New Year’s Six is: Alamo (San Antonio), Camping World (Orlando, Florida), Texas (Houston), Liberty (Memphis, Tennessee), Cheez-It (Phoenix) and First Responder (Dallas), although the First Responder will not have a Big 12 representative because of a lack of eligible teams. The Cheez-It may have the same problem, but we’ll get to that later.

► BIG 12 POWER RANKINGS:The perception past the top two

The résumé argument

The top of the conference ticket is easy. Oklahoma and Baylor, in some form or fashion, will go to the College Football Playoff, the Sugar Bowl and/or the Alamo Bowl. Trying to “rank” the remaining teams is a hair-pulling exercise.

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No. 25 (CFP) Oklahoma State (8-4, 5-4)

League wins:Kansas State; at Iowa State; TCU; Kansas; at West Virginia

League losses:at Texas; at Texas Tech; Baylor; Oklahoma 

Nonconference wins: at Oregon State; McNeese State; Tulsa

Kansas State (8-4, 5-4)

League wins: TCU; Oklahoma; at Kansas; at Texas Tech; Iowa State

League losses: at Oklahoma State; Baylor; at Texas; West Virginia

Nonconference wins: Nicholls State; Bowling Green; at Mississippi State

Iowa State (7-5, 5-4)

League wins: TCU; at West Virginia; at Texas Tech; Texas; Kansas.

League losses: at Baylor; Oklahoma State; at Oklahoma; at Kansas State

Nonconference: won vs. Northern Iowa; lost vs. Iowa; won vs. Louisiana-Monroe

Texas (7-5, 5-4)

League wins:Oklahoma State; at West Virginia; Kansas; Kansas State; Texas Tech

League losses: vs. Oklahoma; at TCU; at Iowa State; at Baylor

Nonconference: won vs. Louisiana Tech; lost vs. LSU; won at Rice

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If we tried to separate these teams through a head-to-head round robin, the first criterion in the Big 12’s multi-team procedure, Oklahoma State and Texas would be in one pod at 2-1, with Kansas State and Iowa State at 1-2. Using head-to-head results after that, an empirical selection order could be Texas, then Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Iowa State.

If we looked at which team has the best victory, in or out of league, Kansas State easily gets the nod with its victory over Oklahoma. Plus, it has a road win at an (underachieving) SEC school, to boot.

Then, if you were left to separate among the three remaining squads in that scenario, Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State would each have one victory over the other, and no real signature win to thump their chests about.

The point here: There’s no hidden hierarchy among this jumble. It’s bunched for a reason. These are four decent, but not great teams, and one could easily make arguments for any of them without too much arm-twisting or numerical gymnastics or protests from another fan base.

Which leads me to …

The politics argument

If on-the-field merits alone don’t dictate a path, decisions are left even more to the bowl directors determining what teams or matchups will bring their games the greatest share of attention. This line of thinking is already the case, of course, but conventional wisdom usually resides in putting the best teams possible on the field to maximize in-game entertainment.

In absence of clear direction this year, plenty of other factors are weighed. Many of them, we can’t quantify from afar. Two principal, somewhat measurable ones are brand strength and the bowl rosters themselves.

Like it or not, it is at this precise moment where schools such as Texas still hold the inherent advantage in the Big 12’s Wild West structure. The Longhorns have legions of fans. Their “brand” draws eyeballs, both from folks who love them and love to hate them in equal measure.

Consider, too, that another love-hate brand in Notre Dame is seen as a near-lock for the Camping World Bowl, second in the Big 12’s structure. The opportunity to put mega-brand vs. mega-brand is going to be too much for the Orlando-based game to pass up, so Texas isn’t falling too far in this popularity contest.

Player availability matters, too. Oklahoma State is the only school of the four currently ranked by the College Football Playoff committee, but there is uncertainty as to whether starting quarterback Spencer Sanders’ thumb injury will be healed in time for the bowl game. And there’s an even bigger question whether running back Chuba Hubbard will suit up as he mulls his NFL prospects.

Such roster limbo is not a promotional bell-ringer for teams like Oklahoma State. The mystery surrounding Will Grier’s West Virginia plans was seen as a factor in the Alamo Bowl having Iowa State leapfrog the Mountaineers for last season’s game.

Fans’ enthusiasm for their season and willingness to travel can also play a role. Iowa State fans were amped to travel south last year and almost always travel well. But would they be singing the Memphis blues at a second Liberty Bowl trip in three years (and a third in eight seasons) after a so-so season, relative to expectations? That’s why, in certain scenarios, it’s reasonable to see Iowa State fall all the way to the Cheez-It Bowl, the last spot that could ostensibly be filled this season by a Big 12 team.

The two base scenarios

All the prognostications you’ll read will start with whether the Big 12 has one or two College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six teams. In other words, is Oklahoma or Baylor making the Playoff?

If yes, then the title-game winner takes the national semifinal spot, and the other goes to the Sugar Bowl to fulfill the conference’s automatic bid in the game. (I suppose there is an unlikely scenario where neither team is in the playoff but both are New Year’s Six selections. Baylor would win the Big 12 title game to reach the Sugar, and two-loss Oklahoma still gets an at-large selection.) The remaining Big 12 squads are slotted to the Alamo, Camping World, Texas and Liberty bowls.

If no, then the title-game winner goes to the Sugar Bowl, and Baylor or Oklahoma goes to the Alamo Bowl. From there, the remaining teams are chosen for the Camping World, Texas, Liberty and Cheez-It bowls.

What the experts say

The guys projecting every last bowl game nationwide are just as divided. Here’s how they see the Big 12 sorting out.

Jerry Palm, CBS Sports

Peach Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Ohio State (CFP semifinal)

Sugar Bowl: Baylor vs. Georgia

Alamo Bowl: Kansas State vs. USC

Camping World Bowl: Texas vs. Notre Dame

Texas Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Mississippi State

Liberty Bowl: Iowa State vs. Cincinnati

Erick Smith, USA TODAY

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Ohio State (CFP semifinal)

Sugar: Baylor vs. Alabama

Alamo: Oklahoma State vs. Utah

Camping World: Texas vs. Notre Dame

Texas: Iowa State vs. Toledo (wouldn’t that be juicy for Matt Campbell?)

Liberty: Kansas State vs. Kentucky

Mark Schlabach, ESPN

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Ohio State (CFP semifinal)

Sugar: Baylor vs. Georgia

Alamo: Texas vs. Oregon

Camping World: Oklahoma State vs. Notre Dame

Texas: Kansas State vs. Texas A&M

Liberty: Iowa State vs. SMU

Kyle Bonagura, ESPN

Sugar: Oklahoma vs. Georgia

Alamo: Baylor vs. USC

Camping World: Oklahoma State vs. Notre Dame

Texas: Kansas State vs. Texas A&M

Liberty: Iowa State vs. Cincinnati

Cheez-It Bowl: Texas vs. Air Force

Brett McMurphy, Stadium

Sugar: Oklahoma vs. Georgia

Alamo: Baylor vs. USC

Camping World: Texas vs. Notre Dame

Texas: Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M

Liberty: Kansas State vs. Navy

Cheez-It: Iowa State vs. Air Force

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To summarize, that’s three votes for Oklahoma in the playoff, two for no. And for Iowa State, we have Houston, Memphis, and Phoenix all as possible destinations.

My final hunches

The national projections are in line with what Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard told KXNO radio Tuesday. The Liberty Bowl is the front-runner, with Phoenix and Houston behind.

Here are my own final thoughts:

If Oklahoma makes the Playoff, sending Baylor to the Sugar:Alamo takes Texas; Camping World takes Oklahoma State; Texas takes Iowa State; Liberty takes Kansas State.

I realize this cuts against the grain somewhat and is particularly unfair to Kansas State. But the picture is this muddled that I think Iowa State gets a small reward for its consistency and fervent fan base. Plus, with the Cyclones having never gone to Houston for the Texas Bowl, it can be sold as an economic selection. I’ve been projecting the Texas Bowl for several weeks if Iowa State finished 7-5, so I’m not going to deviate now, right or wrong.

If Oklahoma doesn’t make the Playoff, thus playing in the Sugar: Alamo takes Baylor; Camping World takes Texas; Texas takes Oklahoma State; Liberty takes Kansas State; Cheez-It takes Iowa State.

Yes, an entire shakeup based on that result. The Alamo will get raked over the public coals if Baylor isn’t chosen first if available. We’ve discussed the Texas-Notre Dame scenario, and Oklahoma State is a good get for Houston. That leaves the Liberty Bowl, which could have some reticence about choosing Iowa State again so soon. Fans would still travel, sure, but as many? A fair question. While I was in Manhattan last weekend, talk in the press box among some Kansas State folks was that the Liberty would jump at the chance to choose Kansas State, and a Liberty Bowl representative was in attendance. Iowa State would get the lowest-pedigree game, but in a new destination.

No matter what, it’s shaping up to be a fascinating bowl selection Sunday in the Big 12. I’ll be online throughout Sunday with thoughts and observations as we hear more.

Danny Lawhon works across the Register’s sports department, from social media and sports wagering to bowls, brackets and data dives. Reach him at dlawhon@registermedia.com or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.​​​​​​​

Source: Des Moines Register