First things first. The Iowa Hawkeyes (12-1) had a fantastic season and, had they scored four more points, they’d be playing in the College Football Playoff right now. Their undefeated run through the regular season and Big Ten play is well-rewarded with a spot in the 2016 Rose Bowl where they’ll take on the Pac-12 champion Stanford Cardinal (10-2). It was a storybook run that deserves to end in The Granddaddy Of Them All.
Narratively-speaking, it makes total sense why the Rose Bowl would choose Iowa over the Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1). Iowa was the darling of the Big Ten season and a feel-good story for anyone who didn’t root for an SEC school. Ohio State was the big, bad bully who lost along the way and was “old news” by comparison. Plus, even though the Rose Bowl isn’t required to go by College Football Playoff rankings, Iowa (No. 5) finished ahead of Ohio State (No. 7).
All of that narrative aside, you also could make the case that Ohio State deserved the Rose Bowl bid. Let’s.
There’s the eye test. Sure, you could compare Ohio State and Iowa’s lone losses, both to Michigan State, and say that Iowa’s was a more “impressive” loss. But there’s that other kind of eye test, the kind that compares the team’s statistically against one another. The blunt truth is that OSU’s S&P+ ranking was miles ahead of Iowa (4th to 34th), had a better Offensive S&P+ ranking (27th to 52nd) and a better Defensive S&P+ ranking (8th to 31st). By all statistical measures, Ohio State was the better team and would likely be favored on a neutral field (because Vegas knows…).
The other easy way to compare the two teams is to look at schedules. In terms of playing ranked teams and teams over .500, it’s a wash. But if you look at it based on S&P+, Ohio State clearly played a tougher road to a one-loss finish. While the Big Ten schedules were similar, Iowa played a cupcake non-conference set of teams (Illinois State, North Texas) while Ohio State’s non-conference opponents actually ended up being pretty good (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan).
Of course, anyone who has watched college football for even a couple years knows that it’s a game that exists within the construct of narratives and “how you feel about it” just as much as what the results are on paper. In that sense, it’s only Ohio State fans who are going to complain about Iowa getting the Pasadena nod. Most college football fans still probably came away from the decision feeling as though it makes sense.
That’s especially true when you consider that Ohio State ended up in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame. As far as consolation prizes go, that’s not a terrible one. It also probably makes that game a bit more intriguing, as anytime storied programs like the Buckeyes and Irish get together, people are going to watch. Any lingering issues OSU might have in getting passed over for the Rose Bowl can be taken out on Brian Kelly’s squad, something a lot of folks probably won’t mind seeing.