IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The gold standard at Iowa has forever been tinted with a dark shade of red.
That is, since 1956, when the Hawkeyes first visited Pasadena, California. They’ve returned just four times -- after marquee seasons in 1958, 1981, 1985 and 1990. And now to cap this season, on New Year’s Day, Iowa is headed to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual against Pac-12 winner Stanford.
The College Football Playoff committee got it right, putting Iowa at No. 5 in its final rankings Sunday, two spots ahead of Ohio State, which heads to the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl to face Notre Dame.
Yes, the Rose Bowl showed a little heart in following the lead of the playoff committee, which was expected but not mandatory.
Iowa deserved this Rose Bowl. Iowa, at 12-1, earned this Rose Bowl. On Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game, the Hawkeyes erased any doubt about the place of this group among all 17 to play for coach Kirk Ferentz, requiring Michigan State to mount an epic, final, 22-play, nine-minute drive to win 16-13.
This is Ferentz’s best team, worthy of his first trip to the Rose Bowl as a head coach.
“To play in any New Year’s Day bowl is great,” Ferentz said Sunday afternoon. “To play in the Rose Bowl is really special if you coach in the Big Ten. Every game is important. To win this one would be a really big accomplishment.”
Michigan State denied Iowa a spot in the playoff. And surely, the temptation was great to leap Ohio State past the Hawkeyes after a resounding win last week at Michigan. Ohio State looked like the best team in the country at the Big House, but it was a week too late.
The committee got it right, because the Buckeyes, though superior athletically to Iowa, finished with one fewer victory, one fewer division title and a loss -- to the same Spartans who derailed Iowa’s playoff bid -- at home as Michigan State operated without star quarterback Connor Cook, MVP of the title game.
A Rose Bowl for Ohio State would have marked its 15th and ranked, in the larger picture, as a disappointment for the Buckeyes, who began this season in playoff-or-bust mode and never hit full stride until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
For Iowa, Pasadena is the pinnacle, befitting as part of a season that even the most optimistic among the Hawkeyes struggled to see in August.
"The Rose Bowl is a huge deal," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard learned Sunday of the Hawkeyes' bowl assignment by text-message bombardment as he tried to sleep after an early morning of travel home from Indianapolis.
The significance of the decision by the playoff committee to keep Iowa ahead of Ohio State was clear, he said.
"It shows that we've got a little bit more respect than we had in the past," Beathard said.
In the aftermath of a brewing party that fizzled with 27 seconds to play as L.J. Scott penetrated the goal line in Indianapolis, the large headline Sunday below the masthead of The Gazette newspaper, distributed around eastern Iowa on a drab morning, screamed one word: Deflated.
But this season did just the opposite around the Hawkeyes. It inflated everyone.
I watched a fan base Saturday night that believed. Even as Michigan State converted two third downs and a fourth down on its last drive -- before the back-breaking score on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line -- a vibe existed around the Hawkeyes that they would find a way.
That was the way this team lived. It always found a way. For so long, people doubted. People doubted Iowa in the season opener against FCS-level Illinois State, when it trailed in the second half at Iowa State, when it lined up for a 57-yard field goal to beat Pitt, when it went on the road to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Indiana and Nebraska.
Of course people doubted Saturday night, when Iowa trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time since the TaxSlayer Bowl last season against Tennessee. And what happened on the first play of that final period against MSU? An 85-yard touchdown throw from Beathard to Tevaun Smith to put the Hawkeyes back on top.
The doubts melted away.
“That’s what makes this fun -- the highs and lows,” Ferentz said recently. “If you’re going to be involved in it, you get both.”
The coach told me last month that he stopped worrying about the Hawkeyes around the time of their bye week in late October. He sat back to enjoy the ride.
“Any chance to play another game with them,” Ferentz said Saturday night, “that’s a bonus.”
He’s got another game. And for Iowa, despite the lingering disappointment, no better spot than Pasadena exists as a finish line for Ferentz’s best team.