When Iowa athletic director Gary Barta was named as the Chairman of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee last January, most of the writers here at BHGP were skeptical that his tenure as the head of this prestigious body would end triumphantly. My colleague Benjamin Ross called Barta’s appointment “a move that’s dumbfounding to Iowa fans and no one else,” and wrote that “it’s almost impressive to watch a guy who can’t manage his way out of a paper bag fall upwards at the speed of light.” However, many Hawkeye fans still viewed his appointment as a tremendous honor for both the university and the athletic department, as well as a potential boon for an Iowa team that had aspirations of competing for the Big Ten title and being a playoff darkhorse.
Nearly a year later, Barta’s first season as chairman seems to have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, Iowa holds the #15 spot in the current playoff rankings which might have something to do with Barta’s voice on the committee, and it appears that the selection team got it right in elevating Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Notre Dame as the four teams to compete in this season’s playoff. All complaints aside, Barta and his team succeeded at the most important task assigned to them.
On the other hand, the playoff committee’s final rankings left plenty of room for disagreement when it came to the teams ranked outside the Top 4, with much of the confusion surrounding the bizarre exclusion of a one-loss Indiana team from the New Year’s Six bowl games in favor of a three-loss Iowa State squad. Instead of having a chance to match up against a quality opponent like Texas A&M or undefeated Cincinnati, the 6-1 Hoosiers have been relegated to an Outback Bowl matchup against a 4-5 Ole Miss team in what is one of the most unexplainable miscarriages of justice that’s happened in college football in some time.
When Barta was appointed to chair the playoff committee, he was put in a position that required him to juggle three competing responsibilities: to promote the best interest of his school, to advance the general interest of the Big Ten conference, and to protect the integrity of the playoff selection process and the sport as a whole. Barta, through the simple act of mishandling Indiana’s ranking, failed at all three of these responsibilities simultaneously.
Let’s work backwards and start with Barta’s responsibility to ensure that the best and most deserving teams are rewarded with bids to New Year’s Six bowl games. Indiana, whose only loss came against Ohio State, was passed over for such a spot in favor of three teams with three losses and a 4-2 Oregon squad that has played fewer games than the Hoosiers have won. Oregon’s inclusion can be explained by their status as Pac-12 champions, just as North Carolina’s Orange Bowl berth can be explained (though not necessarily forgiven) by the bowl’s historic affiliation with the ACC. The more difficult pill to swallow is why Indiana was slighted in favor of Iowa State, a team which won a smaller percentage of its games than the Hoosiers did and which lost by seventeen points at home to a team from the Sun Belt. With Indiana’s only loss coming in a one-score game against the playoff-bound Buckeyes, it’s tough the make the argument that Iowa State was more deserving of a Fiesta Bowl berth than the Hoosiers were. Our friends at the Crimson Quarry laid out Indiana’s case pretty clearly:
If you need a refresh, just know that IU enters bowl season with:
Three top-25 wins, including one at Camp Randall Stadium against the team that CFP chairman Gary Barta and his crew deemed the No. 16 team nationally earlier that week
Only one loss — a seven-point road defeat to the No. 3 team in the country
Placement at No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25
A slot at No. 8 in the Amway Coaches Poll
The No. 5 strength of record nationally
One could even make a strong argument that Coastal Carolina, a team that finished 11-0 and went on the road to defeat the very Louisiana team that so handily dispatched of the Cyclones, was more worthy of the final spot in the New Year’s Six than Iowa State. College football’s postseason is at its best when the strongest teams in the sport are given an opportunity to compete against one another, and its clear that the New Year’s Six selections missed the mark.
Next, the Big Ten. While Barta’s goal as committee chairman is ostensibly to support the interests of the sport of college football above any parochial allegiances, it would be naïve to think that he couldn’t and shouldn’t have been expected to wield his influence within reason to advance the cause of the Big Ten, which is precisely why the committee is composed of athletic directors from diverse geographic locations. In this realm, Barta failed spectacularly. The Big Ten had as many teams chosen for New Year’s Six bowl games as the American Athletic Conference did (one), paling in comparison to the ACC (three) and SEC (four). Furthermore, the combination of Indiana being excluded from the New Year’s Six and four SEC teams making the cut created cascading effects throughout the entire bowl system, relegating Big Ten teams like Iowa, Northwestern, and Indiana to bowl matchups against SEC opponents that are a notch or two below their station. This is not only frustrating for these Big Ten teams, but also for college football fans who will be denied compelling matchups between evenly skilled teams in favor of watching the Big Ten wail on the dregs of the SEC, a conference that just HAD to have a fourth team in the New Year’s Six. While most Big Ten teams likely expected to get a fair (if not preferential) shake from the committee under Barta’s leadership, the conference is now left with Ohio State’s game against Clemson as its lone chance for a signature win during this bowl season.
Finally, Barta also failed to protect the interests of Iowa during his first season on the committee. Iowa’s #15 playoff ranking is a nice, but meaningless gesture given how far the Hawkeyes were from playoff contention after starting the season 0-2. Far more consequential to Iowa’s long-term success are the missed opportunity for the Hawks to play a stronger bowl opponent, as well as the snubbing of a fellow Big Ten team in favor of Iowa’s in-state rival. A Cyclone win in the Fiesta Bowl (which seems probable given how unremarkable Oregon has been for most of the season) would bring greater prestige and legitimacy to a program that is in on basically every recruit the Hawkeyes target, to say nothing of how irritating it will be for Iowa fans to listen to their Cyclone friends and neighbors drone on about it for the next nine months. To be clear, Barta obviously should not have abused his power to keep the Cyclones out of the New Year’s Six, nor could he have given that the committee is composed of more than one man. But, as a Hawkeye fan, it’s discouraging to know that your athletic director wielded so little influence during the selection process that, under his chairmanship, the committee passed over a more deserving Big Ten team in favor of the last program most of the fans whose school pays his salary would have chosen to see make a New Year’s Six game.
Barta and the committee aren’t to blame for Indiana failing to secure a better bowl matchup outside the New Year’s Six, nor are they to blame for the stupid rules that led North Carolina to sneak into the Orange Bowl despite two ACC teams making the college football playoff. But Indiana’s misfortune is emblematic of the committee’s recurring failure to establish a consistent and credible mechanism for ranking and pairing the best teams in the sport, as well as Gary Barta’s failure to wield his influence in the conference’s favor. It’s tough to fault the committee’s selection of the four playoff teams, but for Indiana and Big Ten fans looking for a scapegoat to blame for their uninspiring bowl matchups, they could do a lot worse than Iowa’s athletic director.