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December 17, 2013

Ranking the PAC 12 Bowl Games

A record nine Pac-12 teams are appearing in bowl games this season even though the conference has just seven bowl affiliations, including the BCS. So, capable conference commissioner Larry Scott and a couple of schools had to do some good ol' fashioned politicking to get into a bowl. Those efforts proved fruitful with the Pac-12 venturing as far East (Shreveport, La.) and West (Honolulu) as they ever have, breaking new ground geographically. Here is how we rank the nine Pac-12 bowl games:

1. Rose Bowl: Stanford vs. Michigan State (Jan. 1): If you're a football purist eager for three hours of 'old man football' played between the tackles, this game is a presents to you. Merry Christmas. Even though Ohio State and Oregon dominated the conversation within their respective conferences for much of the season with their high-scoring offenses, defense still wins championships, which is why the Cardinal and Spartans are squaring off in Pasadena. Michigan State leads the country in total defense (248.2 yards per game) and rushing defense (80.8 ypg), and defends the pass effectively as well as anybody (2nd in passing efficiency defense). Stanford is third in rushing defense (91.2 ypg) and 14th in total defense (339.0 ypg), which might be more impressive considering the offenses in the Pac-12 are more wide-open than the Big Ten.

Both teams want to run the football, utilize play-action passes as part of a pro-style attack and dominate opponents with a bruising, ultra-physical brand of football. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney is the star of the Cardinal's offense with 1,618 rushing yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 20 touchdowns. Don't expect a lot of points in this one, but, like a 1-0 baseball score, that doesn't mean it won't be a classic. Special teams could be the difference in the game (Stanford is No. 1 nationally in kickoff returns; Michigan St. has been known to throw out a trick play or two when the situation is right) as the battle in the tranches might produce a stalemate.

2. AdvoCare V100 Bowl: Arizona vs. Boston College (Dec. 31): Only two bowls feature two top-10 Heisman finalists: The BCS title game (Heisman winner Jameis Winston from Florida State and Auburn RB Tre Mason) and this game, which will be played in Shreveport, La. on Dec. 31. If the Heisman balloting id accurate, two of the top three running backs in the country are Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (156.0 ypg) and Boston College's Andre Williams (175.2 ypg). Williams and Carey are 1-2 nationally in yards per game and first and fifth in total rushing yards (Williams is the lone running back in the country with more than 2,000 yards). The fact this supposedly middle-tier bowl game has two of the elite running backs in the country catapults it up the ladder in terms of intriguing matchups.

But this contest is compelling from another perspective. How often has a Pac-12 team ventured this far East, let alone into SEC country, for a non-BCS bowl game? Stanford, of course, appeared in the Orange Bowl a few years ago and Utah beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2008, although they were a member of the Mountain West Conference in those days. Most Pac-12 bowls are situated west of the Rockies, resulting in few opportunities for college football fans in the more populated eastern regions to enjoy the thrills and spills of Pac-12 football. This game represents a small step forward in the Pac-12's quest to become a nationally prominent conference. When ESPN BCS analyst Brad Edwards proclaimed recently the Pac-12 had a legitimate claim for being the No. 1 conference in the land, millions of college football fans residing in the south choked on their grits. Exposure to more Pac-12 football, though, could change that mindset.

3. Hawaii Bowl: Oregon State vs. Boise State (Dec. 24): Ignoring the glorious setting (Aloha Stadium in Honolulu) for the moment, this matchup features two teams that are probably better than their records indicate. The Beavers, of course, started the season with six wins in their first seven games before encountering a gauntlet in the final month with close losses to Stanford and Oregon. But the Beavers have Brandin Cooks, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's top wide receiver, and quarterback Sean Mannion, who is No. 2 nationally in total passing yards (4,403) and passing yards per game (366.9 ypg). Boise State is ranked 91st nationally in passing yards allowed (248.4 ypg), so even though Mike Riley desires a more balanced attack from the Oregon State offense, every reason exists to keep calling plays for Mannion to drop back.

Boise State, of course, has gained a national reputation as a giant-killer in bowl games. But Broncos head coach Chris Peterson has moved on to Washington, so Boise's ability to prepare for a bowl game under adverse circumstances is being tested. Petersen took running backs coach and ace recruiter Keith Bhonapha with him to Washington, so the Broncos have just eight assistant coaching trying to get the team ready for the bowl game. The Broncos have ample talent on both sides of the ball. Boise's standing as a BCS gadfly assures solid TV rating on Christmas Eve and an attractive matchup.

4. New Mexico Bowl: Washington State vs. Colorado State (Dec. 21): The ceaselessly quotable Mike Leach in a bowl game? Yes sir! The Cougars are part of the postseason picture for the first time in a decade, and Leach should be entertaining as always with an endless stream of quips and quotes in order to keep things fascinating in Albuquerque. Colorado State hasn't been to a bowl game since 2008, and the Rams are on the rise under second-year head coach Jim McElwain. No player on either team's roster has ever played in a bowl game, assuring the best effort from everybody involved.

Washington State, of course, runs the 'Air Raid' offense popularized by Leach at Texas Tech and doesn't try to keep secret what they will do. WSU junior quarterback Conner Halliday has completed 62.8 percent of his passes (412-of-656) for 4,187 yards and 28 touchdowns with 21 interceptions. As a result, it's often hit-or-miss (see fourth quarter of Oregon State-Washington State game). The Cougars are 4th in the nation in passing yards (364.5 yards a game), so expect the ball in the air early and often. Colorado State QB Garrett Grayson passed for 3,327 yards this season, a CSU single season record. But the Rams run the ball, as well, behind Kapri Bibbs, the Mountain West's conference leading rusher with 1,572 yards.

5. Holiday Bowl: Arizona State vs. Texas Tech (Dec. 30): The polar opposite of Stanford-Michigan State, which will be played at a pedestrian pace, is this game in San Diego between a pair of rapid transit offenses. Arizona State and Texas Tech are averaging 41.0 and 35.7 points per game, respectively, while the Red Raiders are averaging 513.3 yards per game, ninth highest in the nation. The Sun Devils aren't far behind at 460.8 ypg. However, only one of these teams plays any semblance of defense and that's Arizona State. Texas Tech allowed 48.6 points during the five-game losing streak closing out the regular season, and is ranked No. 82 nationally in total defense (419.1 ypg). So, even though the Red Raiders feature the nation's No. 2 passing offense and are capable of scoring points in bunches, their defense surrenders points at an alarming rate and appears adept at keeping both teams in the game at the same time. How many yards will Arizona State amass? Could be off the charts. This one has 50-49 written all over it. Minimally, it would constitute a major surprise if one of these teams doesn't eclipse 40 points.


6. Alamo Bowl: Oregon vs. Texas (Dec. 30): Six weeks ago, the Fighting Phil Knights thought they were headed to the BCS National Championship game. Oops. Losses to Stanford and, most curiously, Arizona giftwrapped the Pac-12 North title to the Cardinal. Now the enigmatic Ducks are relegated to a bowl game they don't want to be in (see previous condescending comments by UO players when they appeared headed to the Rose Bowl). The key question is how motivated FPK will be to face the Longhorns in what essentially is a Texas home game? Will they pull a Southern Cal and tank the bowl game just as the Trojans did last season in El Paso? The biggest spectacle surrounding this bowl won't have anything to do with Oregon. Instead, the game in San Antonio marks the end of Texas head coach Mack Brown's 16-year tenure in Austin and that's entirely what the media will focus on. Essentially, the Ducks are an afterthought - literally and figuratively.

7. Las Vegas Bowl: USC v. Fresno State (Dec. 21): This one is strictly for college football enthusiasts in Southern California. Speaking of drama, USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron stormed out when Trojans AD Pat Haden handed the coaching reins to former Washington head honcho and Pete Carroll loyalist Steve Sarkisian, who apparently spent the last five years in Seattle in a high-paying 'head coaching in training' program. An intriguing subplot is how Fresno State handles the bowl game. Are the Bulldogs still bummed out about missing out on the BCS?

They were this close to a BCS bowl before a stunning loss to San Jose State in the final regular season game thwarted their aspirations. Now Fresno is relegated to a pre-Christmas Bowl. But will any gloom be replaced by excitement because they have the opportunity to knock off the Golden Boy of West Coast football? The best aspect of this bowl is the matchup between USC's highly ranked defense (Top 25 nationally in several categories) and Fresno's high-powered offense led by quarterback Derek Carr. The Bulldogs rank first in the nation in passing offense (409.8) and third in total offense (570.6) and fifth in scoring offense (45.3).

8. Fight Hunger Bowl: Washington vs. BYU (Dec. 27) : Haven't we seen this matchup before? Actually, yes. Washington and BYU have met eight times over the past 28 years, with each team winning four times in a series that began in 1985. BYU has won the past three meetings, the most recent being a 23-17 home win in Provo in the 2010 season opener. The bowl game at AT&T Park in San Francisco could mark the final game in a Huskies uniform for junior running back Bishop Sankey, who was named Washington's most valuable offensive player after establishing several notable school records in the regular season: rushing yards (1,775), yards per game (147.9), attempts (306) and career rushing touchdowns (36).

Sankey was one of three finalists for the Doak Walker award. Former UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, quickly named the Huskies' interim coach after Sarkisian skedaddled for USC, will lead the charge while new head coach Chris Peterson watches from high above. Ironically, Sarkisian was a former BYU quarterback. BYU has won a school-record four consecutive bowl games, with victories over Oregon State (2009 Las Vegas Bowl), UTEP (2010 New Mexico Bowl), Tulsa (2011 Armed Forces Bowl) and San Diego State (2012 Poinsettia Bowl). Still, 8-4 is not the type of season we've come to expect from the Cougars.

9. Sun Bowl: UCLA v. Virginia Tech (Dec. 31): Except for watching to see: 1) if UCLA can reach 10 wins for the first time since 2005; and 2) what special plays Bruins' two-way star freshman Myles Jack (named the freshman offensive and defensive player of the year in the Pac-12) will pull off at linebacker and running back, is there any reason to devote three-plus hours paying attention to this game? Probably not. The Bruins have had a solid season with a second place finish in the Pac-12 South and a victory in the 'Battle for Los Angeles,' but the Hokies have been a disappointment in the ACC, inexplicably losing at home to Duke and Maryland en route to an 8-4 record.

Hokies' signal caller Logan Thomas never developed into the elite quarterback many analysts thought he would become a couple of years ago. Frankly, Virginia Tech's offense wouldn't scare a bunch of school children. Thomas stayed in Blacksburg for his senior season, but did it boost his draft stock? Probably not. Arizona-BC kicks off 90 minutes (9:30 a.m. PT) prior to this game. Here's a suggestion - watch that game instead.


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