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A Pre-Stanford Look at UCLA's Bowl Picture

Looking at the current bowl projections for UCLA football and the rest of the Pac-12 Conference entering the final week of the regular season.

Jeff Gross

It is nice to be able to write this post, this week. The Bruins have secured their place in this season's bowl picture. The win over Southern Cal last week clinched the Pac-12 Southern Division title, but as we found out last year, that honor itself means nothing in terms of positioning within that picture.

Nothing is guaranteed at this point aside from the Bruins playing in a bowl game aligned with the conference. While a victory in the Pac-12 Championship Game against an opponent to be determined would send the Bruins directly to the Rose Bowl game, failure to take that automatic berth opens the team to the whims of the bowl selection committees. The path taken into the end will weigh heavily on their minds.

Before delving into this week's projections, I'll start with some notes on the relationship between the bowl games and the conference. The Pac-12 Conference holds an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series, which goes to the winner of the conference championship game. That team goes to the Rose Bowl unless that team is ranked #1 or #2 in the final BCS rankings, in which case it plays in the national championship game. The conference has agreements with six other bowl games for its teams to play in, which choose among bowl-eligible teams in a predetermined order, as follows:

  1. Rose Bowl - v. Big Ten (at-large, if Big Ten champion appears in national championship game)
  2. Alamo Bowl - v. Big XII
  3. Holiday Bowl - v. Big XII
  4. Sun Bowl - v. ACC
  5. Las Vegas Bowl - v. Mountain West
  6. Fight Hunger Bowl - v. Navy
  7. New Mexico Bowl - v. Mountain West

Another bowl game affiliated with the BCS may choose one other team from the conference as an at-large participant - ahead of any other bowl game - but is not required to do so under any circumstance, unless a non-conference champion is ranked #1 or #2 overall, in which case it advances to the national championship game while the conference champion plays in the Rose Bowl.

While there is an order in which the bowls pick teams, they are not obligated to choose the 'best' team on the board (aside from the Rose Bowl). The Pac-12 holds its affiliated bowls to a particular selection criteria when choosing teams: Each bowl must select an available team with the best conference record, OR with a record no more than one game worse in the Pac-12. For example, if the best non-BCS team has a 7-2 regular season conference record, the Alamo Bowl may choose any team which finished with a 7-2 or 6-3 record. If the best team finished 6-3, then any 6-3 or 5-4 team may be picked according to the desires of that bowl's committee, with the process continuing down the bowl ladder.

That is an abstract way of saying that Southern Cal could still jump UCLA in the bowl hierarchy if we lose to Stanford, but not if we beat them on Saturday. Jon Wilner's projection actually has this happening, assuming that Stanford beats us twice to end the season. I do not agree with his reasoning, but it does fit within a reasonable projection of the final slate of games and the conference's selection rules. I don't see UCLA's prospects being hurt that much by two losses to a top-10 (maybe top-5 with some help) Stanford team, nor (without a win over Notre Dame) Southern Cal being as attractive a bowl target, despite two bowl-less years, due to the disappointment and dissatisfaction in their fanbase.

There are nearly too many projections to keep track of. To make things a little easier to digest on this Thanksgiving afternoon, I'll break up the projection into two parts, starting with the projections made by conference beat-writers and bloggers.

Projector Rose Bowl BCS At-Large Alamo Bowl Holiday Bowl Sun Bowl Las Vegas Bowl Fight Hunger Bowl New Mexico Bowl
Kevin Gemmell - ESPN Pac-12 Blog Stanford Oregon UCLA Oregon State Washington Arizona Southern Cal ASU
Jon Wilner - SJ Mercury News Stanford Oregon Oregon State Southern Cal Washington UCLA Arizona ASU
Cliff Kirkpatrick - Corvallis Gazette-Times Stanford Oregon UCLA Oregon State Southern Cal Washington Arizona ASU

The writers focusing on the Pac-12 do believe that Stanford will advance to the conference title game and defeat the Bruins in Palo Alto, whether we win this week or not. The question is how much does that affect our bowl desirability. Wilner believes that we will take a big hit, while Oregon State's beat writer and ESPN's Pac-12 blogger do not think so.

Projector Rose Bowl BCS At-Large Alamo Bowl Holiday Bowl Sun Bowl Las Vegas Bowl Fight Hunger Bowl New Mexico Bowl
Jason Kirk - SB Nation Stanford Oregon UCLA Southern Cal Oregon State Arizona Washington ASU
Jerry Palm - Oregon Stanford UCLA Oregon State Washington Arizona Southern Cal ASU
Brad Edwards - ESPN Stanford Oregon UCLA Oregon State Southern Cal Washington Arizona ASU
Mark Schlabach - ESPN Stanford Oregon UCLA Oregon State Southern Cal Washington Arizona ASU
National Football Post Oregon N/A UCLA Stanford Southern Cal Washington ASU Arizona
Stewart Mandel - Oregon Stanford UCLA Oregon State Washington Southern Cal Arizona ASU
Sporting News UCLA Oregon Stanford Southern Cal Oregon State Washington Arizona ASU Stanford Oregon UCLA Southern Cal Oregon State Arizona Washington ASU
Phil Steele Stanford Oregon UCLA Oregon State Southern Cal Washington Arizona ASU

There is one national bowl projector who likes our chances: The Sporting News picks us to win the conference title game and advance to the Rose Bowl. The rest assume that we will lose that game - either to Oregon or Stanford - but will be selected by the Alamo Bowl as the first non-BCS team off the board. The National Football Post projects that Stanford will lose on Saturday and will not be selected as an at-large; Stewart Mandel and Jerry Palm project that Stanford will lose to UCLA this weekend but still be taken as a BCS at-large selection.

Outside of the consensus top-3 of Stanford, Oregon and UCLA, there is not a whole lot of agreement among the projections. But it is possible to roughly rank the attractiveness of the remaining bowl-eligible teams after pulling together the projections: Oregon State; Southern Cal; Washington; Arizona; Arizona State.

The latter two could flip based on the result of this weekend's rivalry game. Southern Cal has an inferior record to Oregon State and will also rate below Washington, if they prevail in tomorrow's Apple Cup matchup with Washington State. I assume the prospect of TV ratings boost them above Sark's boys from Seattle and - for some projectors - the Beavers. If the Trojans beat Notre Dame on Saturday night, it could arrest the downward momentum of the season and boost the spirits of their fans enough to again make them an attractive target for a bowl ahead of better teams.

The Bruins must win the Pac-12 championship game in order to return to the Rose Bowl for New Years, but there is one other scenario in which UCLA might possibly be selected to the Rose Bowl with an at-large bid. It would require Oregon to advance to the national championship game, and some help to ensure the Bruins finish high enough in the BCS rankings to qualify, but in that scenario, there is a chance (though far from a certainty) that tradition could lead the Rose Bowl to select a 10-3 UCLA squad to return to Pasadena. Here is what likely would have to occur this weekend for this scenario to arise:

  1. Oregon defeats Oregon State
  2. UCLA defeats Stanford
  3. Southern Cal defeats Notre Dame
  4. Florida State defeats Florida
  5. Oklahoma State defeats Oklahoma
  6. South Carolina defeats Clemson
  7. TCU defeats Texas and/or Iowa defeats Nebraska
If all of those results occur, Oregon would be set up to play for the national title with a win over UCLA, while the Bruins would enter the Pac-12 title game in the BCS top-14, with the possibility of staying above that threshold with a performance in Eugene strong enough to impress the human voters who make up 2/3 of the BCS ranking input. Still, I wouldn't bet on it happening.

Rather than chase the pipe dream, our best bet is to assume that we need to win every game possible in order to secure the best possible bowl game, whether it be the Rose Bowl, or something from the Pac-12's remaining collection. This way, there is also no real need to give Southern Cal anything but our very worst wishes in their game against Notre Dame on Saturday night.

I hope everyone reading this is having a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with your families and loved ones.