The second in our series of bowl season reflections focuses on the sometimes frustrating, always entertaining Pac-12.
Best: Fiesta Bowl (Oregon def. Kansas State)
Dominating a fellow top-five team and a major conference champion, the Ducks scored on the first play with a De’Anthony Thomas kickoff return and never looked back, leading from then until the final whistle in a victory even more decisive than the 35-17 final score appeared. Nick Aliotti’s underrated defense distinguished itself in stifling Heisman finalist Collin Klein almost as much as the offense that scored the first half’s final touchdown by going over 70 yards in 46 seconds. Duck fans may have found their second straight BCS Bowl title a little bittersweet, for they likely would have demolished Notre Dame in the national championship game had they squeaked out a close game against Stanford. But, especially with Chip Kelly’s surprise decision to stay, this Oregon program stands on the verge of becoming a college football dynasty that regularly contends for the ultimate prize.
Very Good: Rose Bowl (Stanford def. Wisconsin)
For the first time since 1972, the Cardinal claimed the most prestigious title traditionally open to a Pac-12 team. As with most of their key victories this year, the 99th Rose Bowl Game hinged upon the combination of a relentless rushing attack and key defensive stops. National audiences finally should take Stanford more seriously following its second 12-win season and second BCS bowl title of the last three years. This year probably marked its most impressive accomplishment to date, for David Shaw’s team lacked a real superstar and yet won its first Pac-12 title of the century. But many viewers expected the sixth-ranked Cardinal to crush a widely (unfairly?) ridiculed, five-loss Wisconsin team more decisively. Stanford never reached the end zone after the first quarter and dropped a spot in the year-end rankings after more flamboyant offenses lit up the scoreboard at other bowls.
Good: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (Arizona State def. Navy)
The Sun Devils certainly lit up the scoreboard at their bowl, annihilating a farcically inept Navy defense by scoring touchdowns on their first nine possessions. Garbage time may have arrived earlier in San Francisco than at any other bowl all season, arguably before the first half even ended. Combined with the offense’s ability to score at will and in every way imaginable, the defense stifled Navy’s rushing game until it no longer mattered. That balance on both sides of the ball, even against a deeply inferior opponent, ended Todd Graham’s first season at Arizona State on an uplifting note and extended the program’s momentum from defeating rival Arizona. Nevertheless, the Sun Devils must wait until next season and a better bowl selection to produce a nationally relevant victory.
Acceptable: Las Vegas Bowl (Boise State def. Washington); New Mexico Bowl (Arizona def. Nevada)
Falling to a ranked opponent with a history of football brilliance, the Huskies ended their season at a modest seven wins as concern hovered around regressing quarterback Keith Price. Their disappointment in the loss, the overall record, and Price’s struggles should not erase the courage that Steve Sarkisian’s team displayed as underdogs, mounting a fourth-quarter comeback that nearly delivered the upset after they had trailed for most of the game. Showing similar resolve were the Arizona Wildcats in the first year of Rich Rodriguez. An inconsistent team throughout the season that had defeated USC and lost two other games by a total margin of 105 points, they looked headed straight for a demoralizing loss against Nevada. The Pac-12 would have suffered a blow to its prestige had one of its teams succumbed to an opponent from a non-AQ conference, but the Wildcats pulled out a last-minute miracle by scoring two touchdowns in the final minute (surrounding an onside kick recovery). That ending to the first bowl of the season ironically brought more attention to the program than it might have received with a routine victory.
Bad: Alamo Bowl (Texas def. Oregon State)
A key showdown with the rival Big 12 conference lay firmly within the control of the Beavers for the first three and a half quarters, when their defense stifled a dysfunctional Texas offense. Over the last several minutes, a series of stunning throws by Texas quarterback David Ash left Oregon State without answers, while their own quarterback controversy loomed large. The backup-turned-starter Cody Vaz looked clueless and intimidated when the game hung in the balance, surrendering sack after sack. His predecessor, Sean Mannion, continued his woeful penchant for turnovers as the Beavers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against an opponent with an inferior record in the conference’s third-most important bowl game. Oregon State’s inexperience on a stage of this magnitude inclines one towards some lenience, though.
Worse: Sun Bowl (Georgia Tech def. USC)
Ending a season of embarrassment that defied anyone’s worst expectations, USC became the first team in the era of college football rankings to start #1 and end unranked with six losses. An injury to starting quarterback Matt Barkley should not have proved as crippling as it did. Considering their six-win opponent, which arrived at a bowl only via petition, the Trojans should have felt confident behind backup Matt Wittek after his encouraging performance against national #1 Notre Dame. While most of his teammates looked disinterested and scarred by their historic collapse, Wittek inexplicably lost his accuracy and timing in a game that appalled the Trojan faithful. Lane Kiffin also contributed to the debacle with counterintuitive play-calling that dulled the impact of USC’s greatest talents. This supposedly explosive offense scored fewer points against Georgia Tech than any opponent this year except lowly Presbyterian.
Worst: Holiday Bowl (Baylor def. UCLA)
When they led Stanford in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 championship game, the Bruins must have started to eye a Rose Bowl berth. The disappointment from that narrow loss may have trickled into the Holiday Bowl, where they mimicked the listless play of their cross-town rivals in the Sun Bowl. Especially humiliating was the failure of the offense to generate any consistent production against a Baylor defense that ranked among the worst in the country. Analysts expected the Big 12 team to score plenty of points against UCLA’s unremarkable defense, but they also expected the Pac-12 squad to answer in kind. When they could not, national perceptions of the conference plummeted. In the long term, the dose of humility swallowed in this rout may help the young Bruins improve into a more disciplined, more consistent unit under Jim Mora.
The Pac-12 was either very good or very bad with not much in the middle. On one side stood the sustained excellence of Oregon and Stanford, two programs that should start 2013 in the top five or seven of the national rankings. Their BCS victories left the Pac-12 as the only conference to win more than one of college football’s elite bowls. On the other side stood the abysmal implosion of USC and the failure of teams like Oregon State and UCLA to capitalize on their impressive regular seasons. The issues with consistency that have festered beneath the conference’s glittering surface returned to haunt it at untimely moments as the Pac-12 settled for a 4-4 record in a bowl season that they could have finished 7-1. Not until it improves its non-conference record from top to bottom can it consider itself a threat to the SEC—unless it wins a national title next year, which it very well could.