A year ago, when the eight Pac-12 teams ventured into bowl games, there was at least one rash prediction that the league might sweep the post-season. It forgot one tenet: That pretty much doesn’t happen; bowl results are often unpredictable, and in fact, often not a great indicator of the strength of a conference. The league went an undistinguished 4-4.
Now the Pac-12 has a record nine teams in bowls, and just off a loose glance at them, I’m guessing it’s going to be favored in perhaps seven (I’ll reserve judgment on Stanford-Michigan State and USC-Fresno State). So the stage is set for the league to flex some muscle and show it deserves mention among the best in its history. Regardless of how accurate the reflection of strength, it needs to carve out a winning record, at least.
Some thoughts, in order of the games:
New Mexico, Albuquerque, Dec. 21, WSU (6-6) vs. Colorado State (7-6) — Two programs in a state of rebuild under second-year coaches, Mike Leach of WSU and Jim McElwain of CSU. Probably safe to say neither one projected as a bowl team at the start of the season. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Cougars embrace the idea of capturing their first winning season since 2003, or if they’re just happy to be there. They’ll need to contain RB Kapri Bibbs (1,572 yards rushing).
Las Vegas, Dec. 21, USC (9-4) vs. Fresno State (11-1) — The first thing you think of when you see a matchup like this is: How seriously does USC take it, and how much of a motivational edge does Fresno State co-opt? (For more on this, refer back to 1992, when the two played in the Freedom Bowl. Jim Sweeney’s FSU team won 24-7 and it got Larry Smith fired at USC.) The Trojans will be coached by ex-offensive coordinator (and interim head man) Clay Helton, which also raises the question of whether USC will get consistent quality work in with a coaching transition going on. You’d like to think USC’s desultory performance last year in the Sun Bowl, on and off the field, would point Troy toward some serious redemption in this game. But it has to corral talented Bulldogs QB Derek Carr, who leads a team that’s first nationally in pass offense.
Hawaii, Honolulu, Dec. 24, Oregon State (6-6) vs. Boise State (8-4) — The Beavers landed on their feet about as well as a team can on a five-game losing streak. According to the Oregonian, they have five native Hawaiians on their roster and two commitments from players in the Islands. Boise State will be coached by former WSU linebacker Bob Gregory (ex-Cal assistant under Jeff Tedford), and eight of the BSU assistants (including Gregory) under Chris Petersen will be available to coach the Broncos. Somebody did some interesting matchmaking here: Both schools’ basketball teams will be there at the same time in the Diamond Head Classic.
Fight Hunger, San Francisco, Dec. 27, Washington (8-4) vs. BYU (8-4) — When I covered a game at AT&T Park two years ago, I thought it had a weird feel for football, but the bowl managed to land two quality teams. Obviously, Washington’s big question is how much disruption takes place with the coaching transition to interim Marques Tuiasosopo. You’ll hear this 20 times between now and the game, but it’s true: Stop BYU’s running quarterback, Taysom Hill, and you stop BYU. Texas didn’t; he blew the Longhorns up for 259 yards on 17 carries.
Alamo, San Antonio, Dec. 30, Oregon (10-2) vs. Texas (8-4) — The Ducks’ star has fallen considerably in the past month after losses to Stanford and Arizona, a near-death experience against Oregon State, and ill-considered comments by two players that made it sound like the Rose Bowl was beneath them. Oregon needs to redeem itself, and a Texas defense that gives up rushing yards by the acre (180.3 a game) ought to suit the Ducks, especially if Marcus Mariota is fully healthy. The other issue to watch is what happens to Mack Brown between now and then. And . . . wonder if Willie Lyles will do the ceremonial coin flip?
Holiday, San Diego, Dec. 30, Arizona State (10-3) vs. Texas Tech (7-5) — In the fourth week of October, the Red Raiders were No. 10-ranked and 7-0. But they were also fraudulent; they lost their last five games, never allowing fewer than 38 points. I suspect Arizona State is going to be looking to take out its frustrations in not having gotten to the Rose Bowl against somebody, and Tech is it. Key question is whether the Sun Devils can get back Marion Grice for the game. Frankly, the Holiday is too good a destination for the No. 5 slot in the Big 12 (and this is actually No. 6, since the league got two teams to the BCS), so the bowl will be happy to align next year with the Big Ten.
AdvoCare V100, Shreveport, Dec. 31, Arizona (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5) — Start your New Year’s celebration by watching two of the nation’s top backs in ‘Zona’s Ka’Deem Carey and BC’s Andre Williams. I still don’t know what AdvoCare is, not that I’m saying I miss the days of the Poulan Weedeater Bowl, its predecessor.
Sun, El Paso, Dec. 31, UCLA (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4) — Having had a terrible experience with USC last year, the Sun, a place where the community really puts its best foot forward in hospitality, tries another LA team, and hopefully, the Bruins go to school on USC’s attitude last year. UCLA also should be focused, having been schooled by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl a year ago. Tech has lost some luster the past couple of years; it finished a game behind Duke in its ACC division.
Rose, Pasadena, Jan. 1, Stanford (11-2) vs. Michigan State (12-1) — Welcome to the most crunching, physical, old-style game on the bowl card, with Stanford’s eight-man-offensive-line sets cracking heads against State’s No. 1-ranked defense. History lesson: Last time they played was in the 1996 Sun Bowl, and Stanford, an underdog, swamped the Spartans, 38-0, the largest Cardinal bowl victory in history. And who coached that game for Stanford against his alma mater? Why, Tyrone Willingham, the darling of Washington fans everywhere.