Iowa will face Stanford in the 102nd Rose Bowl Game today, a matchup of two teams almost no expert predicted would be championship teams.
Iowa was picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten Conference’s seven-team West Division in a preseason poll of 40 writers covering the conference conducted by the website Cleveland.com, a regional news, event and communication portal whose major news contributor is The Plain Dealer. The Hawkeyes did not receive any first-place votes.
Defending national champion Ohio State was the unanimous choice to both win the East Division and the conference championship.
The Buckeyes didn’t even reach the conference championship game. They finished tied with eventual conference champion Michigan State atop the East Division, but the Spartans received the conference championship game berth on the basis of their 17-14 victory over Ohio State.
Stanford received one vote to win the Pac-12 Football Championship from among 44 media members participating in the conference’s preseason poll. The top choice with 21 votes was USC, which Stanford defeated twice, including in conference championship game.
Iowa will make its first Rose Bowl Game appearance since New Year’s Day 1991 thanks in part to the creation of the College Football Playoff, which is in its second season.
When Big Ten Conference champion Michigan State received the No. 3 ranking in the final rankings released Dec. 6, giving it a spot in the College Football Playoff, a team from the conference had to be chosen to be its Rose Bowl representative, and the Hawkeyes were that choice.
Iowa (12-1) were the conference’s West Division champion, losing to Michigan State, 16-13, in the Big Ten Championship Game, with L.J. Scott running one yard for the winning touchdown with 27 seconds to play.
The Hawkeyes are the seventh team to receive a Rose Bowl berth because a champion of the Big Ten or what is now the Pac-12 Conference qualified for either the College Football Playoff, or the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, which was played following the 1998-2013 seasons.
The Cardinal (11-2) defeated USC, 41-22, Dec. 5 to win the Pac-12 Football Championship and qualify for the Rose Bowl Game for the third time in four years. The last time Stanford accomplished that feat was a string of three consecutive appearances from 1934-36.
The Cardinal offense combines record-setting sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, a quarterback who is in his third season as a starter, fifth-year senior Kevin Hogan, and an offensive line that includes senior guard Joshua Garnett, the recipient of the Outland Trophy, which honors college football’s most outstanding interior lineman.
McCaffrey set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with 3,496 all-purpose yards, breaking the previous record of 3,249 set by Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State in 1988. Sanders set his mark in 11 games, two fewer than McCaffrey.
McCaffrey, the runner-up in voting for the Heisman Trophy, had a school- record 461 all-purpose yards against USC in the Pac-12 Football Championship and a school-record 243 rushing yards in a 56-35 victory over UCLA on Oct. 15.
"The best thing about him is his mentality," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He wants to get better. He wants to push himself.
"Every great player is like that. They’re never satisfied. They never stay with the status quo. They never worry about their records because they want to go out there and do better next year."
McCaffrey will be facing an Iowa defense that has allowed 10 rushing touchdowns, tied for the eighth-fewest among Bowl Championship Subdivision teams, and allowed 100 yards to a running back once.
The Hawkeyes have a balanced offense that has 2,623 passing yards and 2,496 rushing yards. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had won his first 13 starts before the loss in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The teams have one common opponent — Northwestern.
The Cardinal opened their season with a 16-6 loss to the Wildcats on Sept. 5, scoring their fewest points since 2007, while Iowa defeated Northwestern, 40-10, on Oct. 17, in what center Austin Blythe called "a perfectly executed game by us, probably our best game of the year."
Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said he "threw out" Stanford’s game against the Wildcats.
"That didn’t look like Stanford," Ferentz said. "I’ve learned from experience as a coach, we’ve taken teams out to the West Coast and we’re teeing it up at what would be 9 or 10 o’clock Central Time and we haven’t fared so well at that.
"If you take a West Coast team and play at 9 o’clock West Coast time in the Midwest, that’s a good advantage for the home team."
The Stanford-Northwestern game at Evanston, Illinois began at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Time, 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.
The Cardinal was held without a touchdown and McCaffrey was limited to 66 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Ferentz said he expects "a tough, hard-nosed physical football game."
Stanford is "certainly built that way," Ferentz said. "They play a very physical style of football. We like to think we try to do the same thing."
Iowa has lost its last three Rose Bowl Game appearances, with its most recent victory coming on New Year’s Day 1959.
Big Ten teams are 2-9 in the Rose Bowl Game since 2001.
Oddsmakers have made Stanford a six-point favorite. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Cardinal a 69.2 percent chance of winning.