- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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What did we learn from the Pac-12 bowl games? Glad you asked.
Oregon, it turns out, can win the big one: Some folks might not want to admit this, but it's a load off the backs of the Pac-12 as well as Oregon that the Ducks broke through with a win over a very good Wisconsin team in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks, whether you like it or not, have been carrying the conference flag for three consecutive years, and their losing consecutive BCS bowl games hurt the conference's image, just as it prevented Oregon from being perceived as a legit superpower. Now, any residual doubts -- real or merely faked to annoy Oregon fans -- have no more footing. Oregon is what it has proven on the field: An elite program with two BCS bowl victories since the 2001 season.
It would have been nice for USC to be eligible: USC fans believe if the Trojans had been bowl eligible, they would have beaten Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and then won the Rose Bowl, just as the Ducks did. The Pac-12 blog believes Oregon would have won a rematch in Autzen Stadium, but it doesn't matter from our point here. The loser of the Pac-12 title game -- USC or Oregon -- would have gone to the Alamo Bowl, at which point it would have beaten Baylor senseless, perhaps scoring 100 points in the process. Washington then would have been a much better matchup with Texas in the Holiday Bowl than California was, and so-on. In other words, the root cause of a weak 2-5 bowl record is the Trojans not being there to put things into a proper pecking order.
Bowls aren't good when you fired your coach: Arizona State and UCLA both played in bowl games after firing their coach. Both looked terrible. At some point, we'll find out if they lost money while embarrassing their programs. UCLA should not have applied for a waiver from the NCAA to play in a bowl game with a losing mark. Their final 6-8 record after getting downed by Illinois -- as best we can tell -- makes them the first 6-8 team in FBS history. Wow. That's awesome. Hang that on a banner in the Rose Bowl. No matter how the Bruins playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was framed -- a reward for the players! -- it was bad for the program. As for Arizona State, its 6-6 mark got it to a bowl game because its second-half collapse was so bad, it prevented the Sun Devils from losing the Pac-12 title game. There's just something unsavory about a team with a fired coach and a four-game losing streak playing in the postseason.
Defenses need to get better: Washington gave up 67 points. Arizona State yielded 56. Oregon won despite giving up 38. And Stanford yielded 41. California and UCLA didn't give up many points because they faced two of the worst offenses playing in bowl games. Only Utah can get a check mark for defense, and the Utes gave up 27 to Georgia Tech. We in the Pac-12 love offense. We love skilled quarterbacks and exciting running backs. But that doesn't mean the conference doesn't need to play good defense. By the way, Washington's hiring of Justin Wilcox and Arizona's expected hiring of Jeff Casteel sends the right message: We're going to pay big money to get better on defense.
Thanks, Utah: The Pac-12 has had some shaky bowl seasons. And some good ones, too. But the addition of Utah means the conference gets a team that is 7-1 in its last eight bowl games under coach Kyle Whittingham, including, by the way, the 2005 Fiesta Bowl (shared with Urban Meyer) and the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech included a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback to force overtime. This is a well-coached team that plays with a lot of poise and consistent effort. Not every Pac-12 team can say that -- you know who you are. The Utes more than proved they can handle a Pac-12 schedule this season, ending up 8-5 despite losing their starting quarterback. And Utah's ability to show up in the postseason on a consistent basis is a valuable addition to the conference.