- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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At least two people whispered the unthinkable to me after the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
"That," they said, "was a boring game."
That, I realized after some pondering, is what happens when the superior team plays an outstanding game: 35-17 is what happens when Oregon plays well in all three phases against a good but less talented Kansas State team.
Boring, at least if you're an Oregon fan, is good. It means the guys who were supposed to make plays did.
All-American playmaker Kenjon Barner? He rushed for 120 of his 143 yards in the second half. Check.
First-team All-Pac-12 quarterback Marcus Mariota? He passed for two scores and ran for another, winning offensive MVP honors. Check.
Fancypants playmaker De'Anthony Thomas? He returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and turned in a brilliant 23-yard run for a score on a screen pass. Check.
Senior leader and All-Pac-12 linebacker Michael Clay? He led the Ducks with nine tackles, including two for a loss and a sack, winning defensive MVP honors.
And the one thing that folks in other college football regions have too often and ignorantly questioned about the Ducks -- defense -- showed up big-time, holding one of the nation's most potent offenses to 17 points and 283 yards.
Winning in all three phases, including special teams? Check.
If Chip Kelly opts to give the NFL a try, Ducks fans should simply tip their cap to him. He's earned that opportunity by taking a good program and making it great over the past four years.
Stanford, by the way, turned in a much different sort of show against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, but it also was effective. The Cardinal ran the ball and played good defense -- you know: Was all Stanford-y -- and thereby gave the Pac-12 two victories in BCS bowl games.
Those wins on the biggest stages for the conference were a bit of a salve for a mediocre, 4-4 bowl season.
Arizona needed a dramatic -- and really still unbelievable -- rally to nip Nevada. Arizona State was vastly superior to Navy. Both Oregon State and Washington blew games they led in the fourth quarter to Texas and Boise State, respectively. UCLA got bricked by Baylor on both sides of the ball. And USC turned in a humiliating performance against Georgia Tech, one that has Trojans fans lighting torches and marching to Heritage Hall, at least if my mailbag is any indication of sentiments.
The Pac-12 was favored in seven of the eight matchups, Boise State-Washington being the lone exception. So 7-1 was expected, 6-2 would have been solid, and 5-3 defensible. However, 4-4 is simply underwhelming.
The good news is the crowing from other AQ conferences should be muted.
The Big 12 is 4-4 pending the result of the AT&T Cotton Bowl between Oklahoma and Texas A&M on Friday night. The SEC is 3-3, with two of its top-10 teams going down in Florida and LSU. It's got the Cotton Bowl, BBVA Compass Bowl between Ole Miss and Pittsburgh on Saturday, and the national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame on Monday ahead.
If the SEC wins all three of those games, thereby securing a seventh national title, it will make a clear statement of superiority. But one or two slips, even with a national title victory, would nick the SEC's perception of dominant depth.
The funny thing about the bowl season, in fact, is the ACC and Big East roaring like angry puppies. The two most maligned AQ conferences over the past few years (well, other than the 2-5 Big Ten), are a combined 7-3. The ACC, at 4-2, beat LSU (Clemson) and USC (Georgia Tech) on the same day.
So the Pac-12 probably won't be an easy target for trolling. It finished 2-2 against the Big 12 this season -- 1-2 in bowl games, plus Arizona's regular season win against Oklahoma State -- so the potential argument for second best conference is mostly a moot point. The Pac-12 is clearly better at the top. The Big 12 is better at the bottom. And the middle probably goes to the Big 12 after it beat the Beavers and Bruins. Stagger all that however you wish.
More good news: The Pac-12 is well-positioned to take a step forward next year, perhaps even to challenge the SEC.
Oregon and Stanford will be preseason top-10 teams, likely top-five. You could make arguments for preseason rankings for Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and USC. The bottom of the conference also should be better as Colorado couldn't possibly be worse, and Washington State and California surely can find more than three wins in 2013.
Oregon State and UCLA figure to topple when the final rankings come out next week, while Oregon and Stanford will finish in the top-four. No other conference will have two teams ranked higher.
It was a solid season, if a bit top-heavy. It wasn't predictable, which can be viewed as a good thing. USC started the season as the biggest story in college football, and its fall from esteem became an epic tale of woe, inspiring national mockery.
As things set up for 2013, the Pac-12 appears poised to take another step forward in terms of depth.
But will a team rise to the fore and challenge for the national title?
Feel free to talk amongst yourselves on that one.