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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

December 30, 2011 at 6:00 PM

Can any Pac-12 team win? Sun, Kraft Fight Hunger picks

What better way to celebrate New Year’s Eve than with a couple of Pac-12 bowl games?

Saturday, we’ve got Utah-Georgia Tech in the Sun at El Paso and UCLA-Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger at San Francisco as the Pac-12 tries to end a three-game post-season losing streak. (Naturally, the two games are going to be running opposite one another from about the start of the second half of the Sun Bowl.)

Sun (Georgia Tech minus 3 vs. Utah): You’d think Tech, loser of six straight bowls, would truly be on a mission to reverse that streak, and I expect that to be the case. Its coach, Paul Johnson, has a 2-5 bowl record.

Problem is, I don’t see this as a good matchup for the Engineers. The Utes had won nine straight bowls until a loss to Boise State last year, and Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is 5-1 in bowls. He’s unlikely to brook any post-season nonchalance on the part of his team, which is founded on a fine defense and running game led by John White.

Running, of course, is what Tech (8-4) does; it’s No. 3 in the country in rushing at 316.8 yards a game. But the Wreck comes up against two All-Pac-12 linemen in Star Lotolelei and Derrick Shelby, though the Utes will be without defensive tackle Dave Kruger, who is out with a leg infection. Utah has a No. 7-rated run defense, so it’s strength against strength. And if it comes to passing, Tech is looking at quarterback Tevin Washington, who completes 47 percent.

Utah (7-5) is limited offensively, with QB Jon Hays. But it will try to set him up with a ground attack keyed by White. Look for a defensive struggle with Utah in control. Pick: Utah, 23-16.

Kraft Fight Hunger (Illinois minus 2.5 vs. UCLA): Has there been a bowl with more off-field histrionics?

First, there are the coaches. Or there were the coaches. Rick Neuheisel and Ron Zook were fired from their jobs after the regular season, giving way to interim coaches.

Then there are the missing players. Key UCLA linebacker Pat Larimore is out with a thumb injury, backup QB Richard Brehaut has been suspended, and three others are ineligible — including two key players, safety Tony Dye and offensive lineman Alberto Cid.

Brehaut’s absence could be important, because Kevin Prince, the starter, runs the ball a lot and is injury-prone, and the Bruins will go with untested backups because they don’t want to burn the redshirt of touted Brett Hundley.

Illinois has its own problems: Starting fullback Jay Prosch has a staph infection that will keep him out and the leading rusher (600 yards), Jason Ford, is ineligible, as is backup wideout Jake Kumerow.

Oh yes, While Illinois is vowing to break a six-game losing streak (after a 6-0 start), UCLA had two other off-field issues that are so UCLA. There was a procedural delay in getting players their scholarship checks that drew negative publicity, and then there was the Bruins’ perplexing tradition of seniors sabotaging a practice by going “over the wall” and skipping out. You know, just the kind of shenanigans a program like the Bruins needs while it tries to project the illusion of being serious about football.

Mike Johnson, outgoing UCLA offensive coordinator, is the interim coach, while Jim Mora has kept away from the day-to-day activities so as not to be a distraction. But no doubt the Bruins will be trying to impress him.

Check out Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, whose 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles led the nation. A shaky vote for the Illini. Pick: Illinois, 24-19.

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