Pac-12: 2011 Bowl Overview

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Stanford Cardinal (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys (11-1)

Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Stanford take by Stanford blogger Kevin Gemmell: Welcome back to the BCS. The Cardinal return after smoking Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season -- many thinking it was the final game for coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck.

Harbaugh left, Luck stayed. And he turned in a Heisman-worthy season, throwing 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions, including a perfect 26-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the red zone.

With a trio of top-flight tight ends -- headlined by Coby Fleener -- Luck has proved why he's considered the No. 1 NFL prospect. But he's not the only top draft pick on the team. Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is considered one of the two best left tackles in college football and guard David DeCastro is the best interior lineman in the country.

The tight ends -- Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- have accounted for more than half of Luck's 35 passing touchdowns on the season.

But what makes Stanford go is its balance. Stepfan Taylor had his second straight 1,000-yard season, and he did it platooning with Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart and Anthony Wilkerson.

Defensively, Chase Thomas leads a front seven that is one of the best in college football. The loss of inside linebacker Shayne Skov in the third game of the season was a blow to the defense, but youngsters Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley have filled the void nicely -- steadily improving every week.

Oklahoma State take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Cowboys are best known for their offense, and for good reason. Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are one of the nation's best pass-catch combos, and between Blackmon's physical nature and Weeden's accuracy, they're a nightmare for defenses.

Making matters more difficult is Joseph Randle, who has quietly had one of the best seasons of any running back in the Big 12. He's racked up 1,193 rushing yards with 23 (!) rushing touchdowns. Only three players in college football have more TDs. The first-year starter might be the Cowboys' secret weapon.

Defensively, the raw numbers aren't great for the Cowboys, but those rumors you've heard? They're true. The defense is a lot better than most give it credit. The Cowboys have an efficient defense that plays well when it counts, and ranks second nationally with a plus-20 turnover margin. Tough to beat that.

Quinn Sharp and Justin Gilbert make things interesting on special teams, too. Sharp leads the nation in touchbacks, is one of the Big 12's best place-kickers, and would be one of the nation's best in punting average -- if he had enough attempts. Gilbert is a dangerous return man who already has four touchdown returns in his first two seasons.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio

December, 4, 2011
Wisconsin Badgers (11-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (11-2)

Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Wisconsin take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: The memory of last year's 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl helped motivate Wisconsin this offseason.

The Badgers made it their mission to get back to the BCS and change the outcome this year, a plan that was nearly derailed by two straight dispiriting October losses. But they battled back to clinch consecutive trips to Pasadena for the first time since the 1998-99 seasons. And the players say they're not satisfied just to get there.

"We didn't finish it right last year," safety Aaron Henry said. "To have a chance to go out there and finish off something is a truly amazing, special feeling."

It won't be easy. Oregon is one of only three teams in the country that scored more points than Wisconsin this season, and the Ducks' speed could cause major problems for a defense that struggled against swiftness in space at times this year.

The Badgers' best defense, though, could be its offense. Their imposing offensive line could wear on the smaller Ducks, and the ground game led by Montee Ball -- who needs just two more touchdowns to set the single-season FBS record -- will help keep Oregon's offense off the field. Quarterback Russell Wilson should thrive against a less physical defense than he faced in the Big Ten, and he embraces the big stage.

An NC State transfer, Wilson will be making his first BCS appearance. The rest of his teammates know the Rose Bowl well. They hope to find out what a Rose Bowl victory feels like.

Oregon take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon is headed to its third consecutive BCS bowl game and second Rose Bowl in three years. That's great, but the Ducks are 0-2 in those games, so the program is no longer just happy to be there. They need to win to climb another rung in the national pecking order.

The Ducks are not unlike previous varieties. They are again an offensive juggernaut, ranking third in the nation in scoring, fifth in rushing and sixth in total offense. Their relentless, up-tempo offense wears opposing defenses down and causes them to lose concentration and gap integrity. The perceived Achilles’ heel that will be tested, however, is this: Coach Chip Kelly has lost six times. In five of those losses, high-quality teams had extra time to prepare their defenses. Your turn, Wisconsin.

That's one take of the Ducks' opener against LSU in Cowboys Stadium. They lost 40-27 in large part because their rebuilt offensive line struggled with the Tigers’ front seven. Of course, Oregon fans will point to losing the turnover battle 4-1. And it's worth noting no other team scored as many points against the Tigers this year. Only West Virginia had more total yards against LSU.

After the LSU loss, Oregon mostly cruised. The marquee showdown at Stanford was underwhelming, as the Ducks' defense controlled Cardinal QB Andrew Luck and the offense just looked too fast for Stanford.

The win at Stanford put the Ducks back into the national title discussion. A week later, however, they were out with a 38-35 loss to USC, missing a late field goal for the tie as time expired. They bounced back with easy wins over Oregon State and UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Ducks' chief star is running back LaMichael James, the 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and the first back in conference history to rush for more than 1,500 yards three consecutive seasons. But there are plenty of weapons on offense, including multipurpose true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, backup running back Kenjon Barner and tight end David Paulson. The defense produced three first-team All-Pac-12 players and a second-teamer, so it's not a nameless bunch in conference circles. It's solid in most areas and ranks third in the nation with 3.3 sacks per game.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. UCLA Bruins (6-7)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Illinois take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: A bowl game is a San Francisco treat for Illinois, which lost its final six games of the season and fired head coach Ron Zook.

The Illini secured bowl eligibility on Oct. 8, beating Indiana to improve to 6-0 and move into the top 20 of the polls. From there came a stunning free fall, thanks in large part to an offense that forgot how to move the ball; Illinois scored just 66 total points in its final six games after averaging nearly 30 in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase seems to have regressed in his sophomore year.

The one constant was the defense. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (nine, a Big Ten record). No wonder, then, that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was named interim head coach when the school canned Zook. But Koenning says there's no guarantee that he and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino won't leave for other employment before the bowl game.

The Illini's finish made them so unappealing that they got shut out of the Big Ten's bowl lineup. So San Francisco is a nice landing spot, and UCLA -- a 6-7 team that also fired its head coach --- seems like the most fitting opponent.

UCLA take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: UCLA is heading to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an interim coach and losing record. Yeah, it's been that kind of season.

Coach Rick Neuheisel began the season on the hot seat and he couldn't get off it. Only once could the Bruins win consecutive games. The offense ran the ball well but struggled to find any balance with a consistent passing game. And the defense was just terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with a loss at Houston. Neuheisel had made a big deal in the preseason of how important the game was, and the Bruins had stomped the Cougars the previous year. But the Bruins got off to a slow start and couldn't finish a comeback. Then, after a win over San Jose State, the Bruins got clubbed at home by Texas, another team they had beaten the year before.

Then they started alternating wins and losses, beating Oregon State, losing to Stanford and beating Washington State. Things cratered -- it seemed -- in a loss at Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops.

But then the Bruins beat California and Arizona State back-to-back. Both were upsets. And the combination suddenly put the Bruins in the drivers' seat of the reeling South Division. But the Bruins couldn't maintain. They lost to Utah, beat Colorado and then got crushed 50-0 against rival USC.

The UCLA coach needs to be competitive with the Trojans, and Neuheisel wasn't on Nov. 26 and hasn’t been during his tenure. So he was fired, even though the Bruins backed into the Pac-12 title game. The loss to Oregon dropped the Bruins to 6-7, but they nonetheless will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after the NCAA granted it a waiver.

Hyundai Sun Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (8-4) vs. Utah Utes (7-5)

Dec. 31, 2 p.m. ET (CBS)

Georgia Tech take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Georgia Tech, which has the nation’s No. 3 rushing offense, will face the No. 7 rushing defense when it plays Utah in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. It will be Georgia Tech’s 15th consecutive bowl appearance, but the first time in the Sun Bowl since beating Texas Tech there in 1970. Despite its consistent appearances in the postseason, Georgia Tech hasn’t fared well recently, and will be trying to snap a string of six straight bowl losses. Georgia Tech got off to a surprising 6-0 start, but faltered down the stretch and enters the bowl game having lost four of its past six games, including a 31-17 loss to rival Georgia. With only 10 scholarship seniors on the roster, it’s a young team, but the Jackets still lead the ACC in rushing offense (316.8 yards per game), total offense (459.6) and scoring offense (34.9). Georgia Tech’s biggest problems offensively have come when its trailing and is forced to throw the ball more than it would like. Defensively, Georgia Tech has been average at best in the second season under coordinator Al Groh. The Jackets are allowing 25.75 points per game, but Utah has struggled offensively and ranks No. 110 in the country in total offense.

Utah take by Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Utah had two seasons and a yeesh in its first year of Pac-12 play. Actually, you could make that three seasons if you wanted to, considering the Utes joined California, Stanford and USC as the only conference teams to be perfect in nonconference play. Utah started its conference slate, however, 0-4, and there was a wee bit of crowing from the old guard Pac-10 about the Utes being in over their heads, no matter that starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in the Game 4 against Washington. But after getting crunched at California, Utah righted itself and reeled off four consecutive wins. Suddenly, the Utes were in the middle of the South Division race.

What made the difference was stout defense, great production from running back John White and steady if unspectacular play from quarterback Jon Hays. It became clear that if Utah didn't make a bunch of turnovers, it had a chance against anybody. As it turned out, all Utah needed to do on the final weekend of the regular season was beat lowly Colorado. UCLA and Arizona State would both lose their final games, which was how the Utes would ascend into the top spot. This, as you know, became the "yeesh." Colorado ended a 24-game road losing streak with a 17-14 win.

Still, the Utes made it clear they can complete. Now they are headed to a bowl that's one rung better in the Pac-12 pecking order than the destination for the Mountain West Conference champ, the Las Vegas Bowl.

Valero Alamo Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Washington Huskies (7-5) vs. Baylor Bears (9-3)

Dec. 29, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Washington take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Washington took another step forward in 2011 in the third season under Steve Sarkisian, but it needs to win the Alamo Bowl in order to finish with a better record than last season.

The big positive to the season was the surprisingly quick emergence of QB Keith Price. The expectation was he'd be a game manager after replacing Jake Locker. Instead, he was a playmaker who put up substantially better numbers than Locker did in 2010. The big negative to the season was the defense, which ranked 94th in the nation in total defense and 99th in scoring. Not good numbers considering that Nick Holt is one of the nation's highest paid defensive coordinators.

The Huskies were a little slow out of the gate. They played closer-than-they-wanted games with Eastern Washington and Hawaii and then lost at Nebraska. But then they won three in a row and were nationally ranked when they headed to Stanford. But the Cardinal humbled the Huskies 65-21, rushing for 446 yards. The Huskies beat Arizona, then lost three in a row. Getting whipped by Oregon and USC is understandable. Losing at Oregon State was not. But they bounced back with a win over rival Washington State to finish 7-5.

There was progress from a 7-6 season in 2010. If the Huskies remember the Alamo.

Baylor take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Bears have become must-see TV, and Robert Griffin III is the reason why. He's athletic, elusive, and loves to sling it. Nobody throws the deep ball better, and nobody's a better player. But don't listen to the folks who claim RG3 has no help. He's throwing to one of the nation's best receivers in Kendall Wright, who'll run right by most defensive backs. Terrance Ganaway's 240-pound frame has filled out the Bears' offense, winning the Big 12 rushing title with 1,347 yards and 16 touchdowns.

It's a big year for the Bears, who might have their first Heisman winner, despite a defense that's struggled for much of the year. That said, 9-3 is 9-3, and Baylor is riding high into the postseason for the second consecutive year after a 16-year drought.

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl

December, 4, 2011
California Golden Bears (7-5) vs. Texas Longhorns (7-5)

Dec. 28, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Cal take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: California overcame a horrible midseason lull and finished strong, which is why it's heading to the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl to settle on old score.

The Bears will square off with Texas, which some might recall squeezed Cal out of the Rose Bowl in 2004 after coach Mack Brown openly politicked against the Bears.

As for the present state of Cal, it's much different than it was on Oct. 29, when an embarrassing 31-14 loss to UCLA had the Bears reeling, losers of four of five. They certainly didn't look like a bowl team, and quarterback Zach Maynard didn't look like a Pac-12 quarterback.

Then Cal, leaning on its running game and stout defense, pounded Washington State and Oregon State, allowing just 13 points in the two wins. That allowed Maynard to get his confidence -- and mechanics -- back into form. Though the Bears lost at rival Stanford, 31-28, it could be said that Maynard was every bit the match -- at least statistically -- of Andrew Luck.

Cal concluded its season with a strong 47-38 win at Arizona State, which was particularly satisfying based on how poorly the Bears have played on the road the past few seasons.

A 7-5 finish has taken some of the heat off coach Jeff Tedford. Beating Texas would make the Old Blues extremely happy.

Texas take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: For the Longhorns, it's good to be back. After winning 10 games for nine consecutive seasons, the Longhorns spent the holidays at home last year after going 5-7, their fate sealed by a home loss to rival Texas A&M. Not this year. Texas' 7-5 season is still not up to Longhorns' standards. Their defense was hampered by an offense that found its rhythm in midseason but then promptly suffered debilitating injuries. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were rarely healthy over the season's home stretch, when Texas lost three of its final four games.

Linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were the solid anchors of the defense as expected. A solid secondary that refused to give up big plays flanked the pair. It kept opposing offenses from throwing a touchdown pass of longer than 20 yards until Robert Griffin III threw two in the season finale. Nobody in college football went longer, and with the caliber of quarterbacks across the Big 12, that's an amazing feat.

Case McCoy and David Ash are still trading places at quarterback consistently, and McCoy threw the first three interceptions of his career against Baylor. Bowl practices before Texas takes the field again could be interesting, and play a big role in the future of the Longhorns.

MAACO Las Vegas Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6) vs. Boise State Broncos (11-1)

Dec. 22, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Arizona State take by Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: After a strong start, Arizona State crashed and burned, and that's why coach Dennis Erickson is out of a job.

And if the Sun Devils are unfocused against Boise State, they will get crushed, losing a fifth consecutive game and thereby finishing with a losing record. That would be no way to send Erickson off into the sunset.

On Oct. 29, things seemed so different. With the Sun Devils at 6-2 and nationally ranked, Erickson seemed due for a contract extension. Heck, even a raise. Quarterback Brock Osweiler was putting up big numbers and an opportunistic defense was forcing turnovers and getting red zone stops. The South Division title seemed a certainty. And the schedule eased up, so it was reasonable to project 10 wins.

But things went haywire at UCLA, and the Sun Devils never recovered. After losing to the Bruins, ASU went down at Washington State and lost to rival Arizona, which was playing with an interim coach after firing Mike Stoops. The season-ending loss at home to Cal was played in front of an embarrassing number of empty seats. The defense went belly-up during the losing streak.

Most Sun Devils fans are focused on who the team's next coach will be. The Sun Devils better focus on Boise State or they could get embarrassed.

Boise State take by Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: For the second straight year, Boise State is left to lament a missed field goal. This year, it was Dan Goodale’s 39-yard miss as time expired against TCU, and Boise State lost 36-35. The loss snapped a 65-game regular-season home winning streak and any hopes for Boise State to get back to a BCS game. Last year, it was Kyle Brotzman who missed field goals in regulation and overtime in a loss to Nevada, also costing the Broncos a BCS shot.

The Broncos may have finished as the highest-ranked non-AQ team, but you are not guaranteed an automatic spot into the BCS unless you are a conference champion. It is really hard to believe that a second-straight 11-1 season could end with so much disappointment. But only in Boise are 11-win seasons disappointments when you don’t have access to the big stage.

Still, this senior group has won 49 games in its career and has a chance to set the record for most wins by a class in the bowl game. Quarterback Kellen Moore topped himself with another fine season, throwing for 3,507 yards, 41 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He did it without his top two receivers from a season ago, turning a group of unknowns into his go-to guys.

Tyler Shoemaker had 15 touchdown catches to lead the way. The defense was perhaps not as crisp as in years past. The defensive line was unable to get consistent pressure up front, and the secondary has been ravaged by one injury after another. The Broncos played against TCU without their top three cornerbacks and had to rely on freshmen against some very talented skill players. Doug Martin was banged up this year as well. Still, you have to give credit to this program for its recent run of success over the last four years -- one BCS appearance, plus three other teams completely worthy of getting in. Remember the undefeated regular-season team of 2008 was left out of the BCS, and now back-to-back seasons have been decided by a field goal.