Earlier today I had the chance to chat with Fiesta Bowl official Tony Alba about the increasing likelihood of the bowl selecting Iowa or Penn State to play Jan. 4 in Glendale, Ariz.
While Alba reiterated several times that the Fiesta Bowl also is considering teams from other conferences, he acknowledged that both Iowa and Penn State are very much in the mix. If the Fiesta ends up choosing between the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions, a distinct possibility if it loses potential Big 12 champion Texas to the national title game, the decision won't be easy.
"We’ve got a long and storied history with Penn State," Alba said. "They’ve been here six times and are 6-0. We kind of grew up together, in a lot of ways. They were very instrumental in our growth and our development. ... On the other hand, you look at Iowa, and we’ve never had them. We have no history with them, but they have been on our wish list for many, many years. We’ve always tried to get them, and for whatever reason, it just never was able to work out.
"You look at both universities, and there's appeal on both sides for different reasons."
Iowa's primary argument for selection is its 21-10 victory against Penn State on Sept. 26 at Beaver Stadium. The Hawkeyes also rank higher in the BCS standings (No. 9 vs. No. 11), though Penn State is ahead in both the Coaches' and Harris polls.
What happens on the field does matter to bowls, but it doesn't mean everything. Iowa should know this after leapfrogging a Northwestern team it lost to last year for an Outback Bowl berth.
"[Iowa's win] is a factor, but at the same time, it did happen quite a while ago and Iowa now has an injured quarterback [Ricky Stanzi], so that’s certainly a factor as well," Alba said. "Now we understand he most likely will be back for the bowl game, so you have to look at the big picture. If it comes down to just between those two, the head-to-head meeting would be a factor, but not an eliminating factor."
On the flip side, Penn State can point to several blowout victories as well as its national appeal, its enormous fan base, its past bowl TV ratings and its legendary coach (Joe Paterno). But much like Iowa's head-to-head victory, these factors are only part of the selection process.
"The fact that they’ve never been here would make our destination even more attractive for Iowa," Alba said. "So from a fan standpoint, we have every reason to believe that they would travel en masse to the Phoenix area. I also believe that they’re a national program. They have a great history with coach [Hayden] Fry, one of the all-time greats. You could also classify Iowa as a national program, perhaps not to the extent as Penn State, but it's very, very close."
Alba noted that there's "no clear consensus" on which Big Ten team the bowl would choose if the opportunity presents itself on Sunday.
"If we were to eliminate everybody else and just look at Penn State versus Iowa right now, in terms of which one would get the nod," he said, "in all honesty it may be a coin flip at this point."