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Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Pac-10: Who needs to win their bowl game?

By Ted Miller

Bowl games are rewards for successful seasons. At least that's the theory.

But what if you lose your bowl game? What does that say about that so-called successful season?

It's hard to call a bowl game a "must-win" because it's really not -- rarely does a bowl, for example, determine a coach's fate. But it seems reasonable to measure the four Pac-10 bowl games in terms of "need to win."

So this is the third in our series rating how much each of the conference bowl teams needs to win its bowl game. You can review the first entry here and the second one here. We're working our way up from the bottom, so this No. 3.

Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29, 9:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Oklahoma State Cowboys (10-2) vs. Arizona Wildcats (7-5)

The set up: Arizona will arrive in San Antonio lugging along a four-game losing streak that ruined a 7-1 start. Oklahoma State will arrive with one of the best offenses in the nation, but it's probably still smarting from a nailbiting 47-41 loss to rival Oklahoma that cost the Cowboys a top-10 ranking and shot at a BCS bowl game. The Cowboys boast perhaps the best offensive skill position troika in the nation in Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Justin Blackmon and a pair of All-Big 12 first-teamers in quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Kendall Hunter. The Wildcats defense, meanwhile, struggled down the stretch, particularly against the run. On the plus side for Arizona, the Cowboys defense, while improved, is vulnerable, particularly against the pass. It gave up 540 yards to Nebraska, including 323 yards passing, and 588 yards to Oklahoma, including 468 yards passing. Arizona quarterback Nick Foles could be in for a big evening. Oh, and Cowboys fans aren't too fond of Stoops brothers. While they won't be able to knock over Bob Stoops this year, they'd surely enjoy doing it to Mike Stoops, whom they remember from his Sooners days.

Why Arizona needs to win: It's simple: The Wildcats don't want to carry a five-game losing streak into the offseason. How can a team view a season as successful when it's capped by a five-game losing streak, no matter how tough the competition? It's certainly not a burden Mike Stoops wants to carry into the offseason. Stoops got off the hot seat in 2008, but there are more than a few Wildcats fans who will start grumbling anew about a final 7-6 record that includes a five-game losing streak AND a loss at home to archrival Arizona State. Further, when the Wildcats are winning, Stoops' hyperactive presence on the sidelines is mostly viewed as amusing or perhaps just an quasi-admirable showcase of unbridled intensity. Yet when they are losing, Stoops' sideline behavior seems to become a bigger issue. If the Wildcats can beat a highly ranked team in a bowl game and win eight games for a third consecutive year, the season likely would be viewed as a moderate success, as another building block as the Wildcats try to take another step forward as a program. If they lose, the season will feel like a step backward.

Why just getting there is enough: Let's be practical: It's hard to win consistently at Arizona, which still puts basketball first. Stoops has built a winning program that has remained competitive in the top half of the Pac-10 for three consecutive years. Further, the Wildcats are substantial underdogs to a highly ranked team that only lost two close games to highly ranked teams, Nebraska and Oklahoma. How can a team be playing a "need-to-win" game when it's nearly a touchdown underdog? And say whatever you want about the season-ending losing streak, but there are five other Pac-10 teams -- including the Sun Devils -- that  would gladly switch places with the Wildcats, who are playing in the Pac-10's "No. 1" non-BCS bowl game for a second consecutive season. Arizona fans should be more attuned to making Stoops happy and keeping him in Tucson than criticizing his sideline behavior or putting him on a "hot seat" for not taking another step forward.

Conclusion: These are both reasonable arguments. A five-game losing streak is a terrible way to end a season, but a berth in the Alamo Bowl can hardly be described as a poor season in Tucson. But since when does reasonable apply in college football? If Arizona loses the Alamo Bow, particularly if it gets whipped, it will be a long offseason in Tucson. And more than a handful of pundits will speculate that Stoops needs to produce better results or he will return to the hot seat in 2011.

Needs to win meter (scale of 1 to 10, "10" being a must-win): 7