Outback overflowing with Big Ten options

Outback Bowl CEO Jim McVay can't remember a year quite like this one.

"We have great options, spectacular options," McVay told me today. "Who do you want? Penn State? Michigan? Iowa? ... Normally, it's a little clearer, you've got one or two teams. But now you've got a handful of good teams."

McVay and the rest of the Outback Bowl selection committee members are waiting for the official word on whether or not the Big Ten will send two teams to BCS bowls.

In the highly unlikely scenario that only one Big Ten team gets a BCS invite, the Outback will have an easy decision, selecting the 11-1 squad that doesn't go to the Rose Bowl or the Capital One Bowl. The likelier scenario calls for the Capital One Bowl to select the final 11-1 team from the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Ohio State or Michigan State). If this happens, the Outback will have up to five choices: Penn State (7-5), Iowa (7-5), Michigan (7-5), Northwestern (7-5) and Illinois (6-5).

How does the selection committee narrow the pool?

"You talk to the athletic directors, you talk to the media people, you talk to the fans, you send your people up there to watch the games and they come back with reports on everything," McVay said. "We look at the record, look at who they beat, look at who's on an uptick, look at who feels good about themselves. Some teams and some fans have had enough for the year, and some are feeling pretty good about the future, where they're going.

"We probably over-analyze this stuff, but that's what we do."

Most folks are projecting Penn State or Iowa to the Outback. Colleague Mark Schlabach and I have the Nittany Lions in Tampa, while colleague Andrea Adelson has the Hawkeyes heading to the Outback.

Iowa has wins against both Penn State and Michigan, and the Hawkeyes had a strong showing at the Outback Bowl both on and off the field in 2008. The problem: Iowa dropped each of its final three games and four of its final six.

"They caught every bad break they could this year, haven't they?" McVay said. "But they've been great with us."

The Outback hasn't had Michigan since 2003, and no bowl has had a shot at landing the Wolverines and their massive fan base since 2007. On the flip side, there's uncertainty around the Michigan program regarding coach Rich Rodriguez's job status, and the Wolverines dropped five of their final seven games.

"The quarterback [Denard Robinson] is spectacular, there's a lot of things swirling around there, they're 7-5," McVay said. "They're in the conversation."

One team not to be discounted is Illinois.

If Illinois wins Friday at Fresno State, it will have recorded victories in four of its final six contests. Of the likely Big Ten candidates for the Outback, only Penn State finished the season strong with wins in four of its final six games. Illinois holds a head-to-head victory against Penn State.

The Illini also have the longest Outback Bowl drought, last reaching the game on Jan. 1, 1991. Northwestern and Iowa have gone the past two years, while Penn State went on Jan. 1, 2007.

"They are in the conversation," McVay said. "They're a good football team. They had a couple of tough ones with Michigan and Minnesota, but they're pretty good."

South Carolina and Alabama are two likely options for the Outback from the SEC.

"This is perfect for us," McVay said. "Absolutely perfect."