With the Pac-12 Championship Game being held this weekend, along with those for a slew of other conferences, it is time to seriously take a look at the bowl options facing UCLA and the other bowl-eligible teams in the Pac-12.
There are several updated bowl projections covering the Pac-12 and the other conferences making up the FBS. Sports Illustrated has theirs; as does CBS Sports and SB Nation. ESPN has two different editors making picks. Definitely give those links a look in order to get a broad sense of how the bowl bids might shake out as well as to get an idea of possible opponents - I am not going to deal with the possible bowl opponents here, as I really don't have much insight into how those other conferences will shake out beyond reading those same projections that I just mentioned. What I can do is give you an idea of what the possible options are for the teams and bowls of the Pac-12, and which combinations of bowl and team seems most likely.
While each of the bowl games tied in with the Pac-12 have a specific order in picking teams, they do not have to select teams based purely on who has the best won-loss record or head-to-head results. Per the Pac-12 Handbook, bowls have the option of choosing the team remaining with the best conference win-loss record, or another team with one more loss that the best team. (2011-12 edition cited below, though I do not believe the rule has changed this year)
After the Rose Bowl and/or BCS participants from the Conference have been identified, the Conference has bowl agreements with six additional bowl games which have selection preference in the following order: Alamo Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and New Mexico Bowl. In no event will a bowl select a team that has two or more conference-game losses than the team(s) highest in the Conference standings that is available to the selecting bowl game. For example, if the highest remaining team(s) in the Conference standings when the selecting bowl position comes up has a 6-3 Conference-game record, the selecting bowl, at its option, could bypass that team(s) for a team with a 5-4 conference-game record, but could not bypass it for a team with a 4-5 or worse Conference-game record. [2011-12 Pac-12 Handbook, p.138. SPR 5-1-d-(3)]
For example, if Arizona State loses on Saturday, at 8-1 in regular conference play it can only be passed over by a team that finished 7-2 (Oregon). 7-2 Stanford could be jumped by teams that finished 6-3 (UCLA or USC).
Before diving into the most likely destinations for each team, let's take a look at all of the possibilities for each team and bowl game under the Pac-12's bowl selection rules. In the charts below, the "XXX"'s correspond to every bowl that a team can end up in and every team that a bowl could theoretically be able to select. Keep in mind that the realistic scenarios for each team and bowl game are much narrower than what the next 2 charts show - these are the best and worst possible scenarios.
If Arizona State wins the Pac-12 Championship Game:
|team||Record||Alamo Bowl||Holiday Bowl||Sun Bowl||Las Vegas Bowl||Fight Hunger Bowl||New Mexico Bowl||At-Large Selection|
If ASU does win the conference AND Oregon nabs a BCS-at large spot, the above chart still holds but with Oregon's row removed. Stanford, UCLA and USC's worst case scenario shifts up (or to the left on this chart) by one place - eg. Stanford does no worse than the Sun Bowl.
And if Stanford Wins the Pac-12 Championship game, the possible bowl scenarios are:
|team||Record||Alamo Bowl||Holiday Bowl||Sun Bowl||Las Vegas Bowl||Fight Hunger Bowl||New Mexico Bowl||At-Large Selection|
As with the last chart, there are some changes to factor in if Oregon gets a BCS at-large spot. ASU would be locked into the Alamo Bowl since they are a full 2 games ahead of the next eligible teams (UCLA and USC). The Bruins and trojans could do no worse than the Las Vegas Bowl and Washington would become eligible to be selected by the Holiday Bowl,
That section from the Pac-12 rulebook lays out the only requirement for bowl games to follow in selecting teams, but there are rough guidelines and other considerations that the committees running those events follow in deciding on who to invite. The particulars are unique to the people running each game, but include the team's overall record; record in conference and against other teams under consideration for that game; how the team finished the season; and the desirability of the team in terms of fan/alumni travel as well as drawing television viewers. Typically several of those factors will run together.
To be honest, the bowl selections look pretty straightforward at this point. While the teams involved in the non-Rose Bowl selection process will not be finalized until after the Conference Championship game - maybe not until after Sunday's BCS Selection Show if it seems Oregon will has a shot at a BCS bowl - there is a pretty good idea of how these games will shake out - how teams fit in with each game. Taking the projections that I linked earlier into account along with my best judgment, here is how I see the bowls and teams coming together:
UCLA - Sun Bowl (v. ACC)
On this site, the Bruins come first regardless of how the conference records shake out. Thankfully the Bruins won't be falling too far down the bowl ladder. The Bruins could theoretically end up anywhere between the Alamo Bowl and back Fighting Hunger in San Francisco, but I think we end up right in the middle of that group with the Sun. The last time UCLA played in El Paso was in 2005, when the 2 Live Drew (featuring Marcedes Lewis) Bruin squad beat Northwestern to cap off Karl Dorrell's 10-win season. This year's team is on far better footing than Karl's one good team, but would do well to copy that season's ending. I did write that I would not try predicting opposing teams, but felt that I should note that one of the two most likely Sun Bowl projections is: UCLA v. Miami. Or maybe I shouldn't have brought that up...
If ASU goes to the Rose Bowl, UCLA could theoretically be selected by the Alamo Bowl, though I believe Oregon will be their first pick. If ASU and Oregon go to BCS games, the Bruins could end up jumping to San Antonio if the Alamo committee does not want Stanford as a repeat team.
Oregon - Alamo Bowl (v. Big XII)
Yes, the Ducks finished 2nd in the North division and with a worse record in conference than the Southern champions. But the various bowl projections all have Oregon getting the Pac-12's best non-BCS bowl spot, and while I am willing to take issue with outside media figures making guesses at Pac-12 and west coast football, I think they are making a reasonable guess. This isn't certain - the title game loser could still end up here. But Oregon has the most likely shot. Oregon also does have a chance at getting a BCS at-large spot. It is not likely to happen, but possible.
Those national projections are all working off the assumption that Stanford will beat Arizona State in Tempe. Given how thoroughly the Cardinal handled the Sun Devils in Palo Alto earlier in the season, I can see where they are coming from. If Stanford goes to the Rose Bowl, the Alamo committee gets to decide between a 10-2 Oregon team that despite looking a bit weak late in the season still holds plenty of national cachet, and a 10-3 ASU team that played strongly late in the season but is not as much of a draw for the NYE afternoon TV viewers. Unless the committee does not believe that Oregon fans will travel for this one, Oregon gets the nod.
But while there is justification for the national writers to put Stanford through to the Rose Bowl, I don't think they are fully considering how well ASU is playing now, and how well they typically play at home. ASU is a slight favorite, and with good reason. If the Sun Devils end up playing in Pasadena, the Alamo committee will have a tough decision between 10-2 Oregon and 10-3 Stanford, which holds the head-to-head victory over the Ducks. The h2h result really does not matter much - it shows that Stanford is a tough matchup for Oregon, but that doesn't have much impact on which team is the better opponent for the Big XII team coming into town.
Arizona State/Stanford Loser - Holiday Bowl (v. Big XII)
Given my assumption that Oregon gets the Alamo Bowl bid, it makes sense to put the Cardinal and Sun Devils together here. Either team would have a shot at San Antonio over the Ducks, but the Holiday Bowl does seem the more likely fit. In ASU's case, they simply cannot fall below the Holiday Bowl due to the conference bowl selection rule (the rule would not matter anyways - ASU would still be the most desirable team here). My best guess is that if ASU wins the conference, that Oregon would just squeak into the Alamo Bowl ahead of Stanford. In that case, Stanford is the most desirable team of the three possible choices: Stanford/UCLA/USC. We lost solidly in the head-to-head and played in the Holiday Bowl last year, while Southern Cal is currently a dumpster fire.
If Stanford wins the Pac-12 Championship Game AND Oregon gets a BCS at-large spot, ASU would by rule play in the Alamo Bowl, and not be under consideration for a spot in the Holiday Bowl.
Southern Cal - Las Vegas Bowl (v. MWC)
Aside from Fresno State, no other team bombed its bowl options as badly last weekend than the trojans (Right now, Alabama's fall from its conference title game and the BCS title game is obviously the most drastic result. But it can do no worse than another BCS bowl, and the Tide remains ready to get their title shot back if Auburn loses to Mizzu and Ohio State falls to Michigan State - both very possible results). Coming into the rivalry game with the Bruins, Southern Cal had recovered strongly from its 3+ year case of Lane Kiffen-itus.
After beating Stanford and returning to the Top-25, they were the hottest team in the conference - while they were out of the Rose Bowl hunt, their 6-0 conference record under Ed Orgeron had them on track to jump Oregon and any other conference team in the bowl process. After last season's crash > Sun Bowl and the two bowl-less years before that, the combination of a hot finish and a win over their rival would have gotten their supporters ready to travel in force. I have to believe they would have easily outshone Oregon as the leading non-BCS eligible team in the conference and gone to the Alamo Bowl. Then 35-14 happened...
The loss to the Bruins was bad enough for their chances. The hiring of Steve Sarkisian - or more specifically the lack of excitement over his hiring - makes their bowl profile even worse. There is no doubt that the Pac-12 Championship game loser, Oregon and UCLA are better bets for a bowl to make. With those three teams taking the top three bowls, that leaves Southern Cal going to Las Vegas. If Oregon does get that at-large spot, ASU/Stanford and UCLA would move up to the Alamo and Holiday Bowls. That should allow USC to move up to the Sun Bowl... On second though, nope.
Washington - Fight Hunger Bowl (v. BYU)
Not much analysis for this pick. The Huskies are pretty much set as the #6 team in the conference this year, in terms of performance and in bowl desirability. With Sark's departure to Los Angeles, Washington has their own coaching vacancy to deal with - I don't believe their fans are as hurt by losing Sark as trojan supporters are by gaining him, but that is not enough for them to climb above Southern Cal on the bowl ladder.
Funny enough, Washington would be the biggest beneficiary if Oregon gets that BCS at-large spot. That would cause the teams above them to move up one spot on the bowl ladder - with the exception of Southern Cal rising from Las Vegas to Sun. Thanks to USC's being USC during last year's game week, I doubt the trojans are not getting invited back to El Paso anytime soon. Huskies would be the easy pick for the Sun committee in that case.
Arizona - New Mexico Bowl (v. MWC)
This is the pick that I am least confident in, but there is definitely a solid foundation behind it. Honestly, the New Mexico Bowl is not a game that people are that excited to watch or travel to. In the Wildcats, the bowl would get the geographically closest possible team in hopes of getting fans to make the trip one state over. And the late-season upset over Oregon along with the presence of one of the nation's elite players in Ka'deem Carey makes for a more desirable national (TV) matchup than the remaining choices. The problem is that Arizona played there last year - while there is not a no-repeat rule in effect, bowls try to avoid selecting the same team in back-to-back years when there is another option.
While the Arizona pick makes perfect sense, Washington State could end up in Albuquerque instead, under the thinking that the decade-long Cougar bowl drought will encourage their fans to travel in strong numbers - and stay in town longer/spend more due to the greater investment of time and money in traveling from the Northwest.
Washington State/Oregon State - At-Large Selections
With a 6-6 record, the Cougars have become bowl eligible for the first time in a decade. Washington State deserves congratulations for that, but that alone does not ensure that they will actually be playing in a bowl game later this month. The conference bowl guarantees stop with New Mexico; assuming they pick Arizona, the Cougars will be left looking for a unclaimed bowl berth elsewhere in the nation - presumably with the assistance of Larry Scott and the Pac-12 leadership.
Oregon State falls into the momentum trap - the Beavers made up for their season-opening loss to an FCS team by winning their next 6 games, closing in on national recognition for the team and QB Sean Mannion in particular. But despite some solid performances, OSU lost their final 5 game of the season to enter bowl season on the worst note and holding the least desirable resume of all the Pac-12's bowl eligible teams. I can't see any reason for the New Mexico or Fight Hunger Bowls to take the Beavers though it is theoretically possible that either game could choose to do so. Their bowl hopes will depend on a lower-tier game elsewhere in the country having an unclaimed berth that another at-large candidate has not already taken.
If the Pac-12 does send 2 teams to BCS bowls, Washington State would beat out Oregon State for the final guaranteed conference bowl bid in New Mexico, and might have a slight chance of jumping the Wildcats for the Fight Hunger Bowl in that case. That prediction comes down to the momentum and percieved excitement surrounding the respective programs at the moment: Washington State's first bowl game in a decade compared to Oregon State's second-half crash and overall down year. If there are not at-large spots for both teams, I would also guess that WSU gets picked over OSU.
That's how the conference bowl picture looks to me today. What do you all think?