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Pickin’ the PAC: The Game of Bowls Begins

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Bowl positioning is now a “thing” as Pac-12 teams enter the home stretch of the season.

Utah v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Bowl season is just around the corner. You know you love it. More than a month of games set at random times during the weeks that match up teams with “winning” records from disparate conferences in hopes of luring the eyeballs of viewers from across the country.

Basically, a great reason to indulge in pub food and to drink yourself into joyful oblivion on a nightly basis. A true cure to the holiday blues.

For something that is, in essence, nothing more than exhibition, the intensity that programs summon to maximize their positioning is part of the enchantment of this part of the season.

As a reminder, here are the Pac-12 contracted bowl games:

  1. Rose Bowl - vs. Big Ten (Pasadena, CA)
  2. Alamo Bowl - vs. Big 12 (San Antonio, TX)
  3. Holiday Bowl - vs. Big Ten (San Diego, CA)
  4. Foster Farms Bowl - vs. Big Ten (Santa Clara, CA)
  5. Sun Bowl - vs. ACC (El Paso, TX)
  6. Las Vegas Bowl - vs. MWC (Las Vegas, NV)
  7. Cactus Bowl - vs. Big 12 (Phoenix, AZ)

The bowls pick eligible Pac-12 participants in the order listed above. There is some flexibility in the rules that govern the process, but generally speaking the bowls pick Pac-12 teams in the order noted above based on their overall records in conference.

It matters, therefore, how teams who have begun to fall out of the championship race but have a clear line of sight to bowl eligibility play over the next several weeks. We have games this weekend that are not only vital for the eligibility hopes of some teams, but also in maximizing the positioning of those teams relative to rivals.

Game of the Week

California at USC (-13.5) - Thursday Night!

Both Cal and USC enter this Thursday night contest sitting at 4-3 overall records. However, the Trojans have a half-game lead over the Bears in the race for bowl positioning based on conference records. So this game has real bowl positioning implications.

Believe it or not, every bowl up to the Alamo is realistically still available to both teams. USC still harbors hopes of a Pac-12 championship given their win over Colorado, though they will require a little help with their Utah problem (hello, UW).

Oregon v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The stakes will be high when the two teams square off in #PAC12AfterDark on tonight.

Cal is coming off a six-day break following their Friday night affair with Oregon last week. The team travels to LA a little out of synch, a little beat-up and a little fatigued. Unfortunately, LA has not been kind to them. They haven’t won a game in the town since they beat UCLA in 2009. They’ve lost 14 of their last 15 games to USC including a current losing streak of 12 in a row (sound familiar)? So, yeah, they’ve got a challenge ahead of them.

USC, on the other hand, is in the middle of a bit of a renaissance as freshman QB Sam Darnold continues his phenomenal ascension. Darnold has posted the second-highest college QBR of any QB in the nation since his insertion into the starting lineup. While much of this is tied to his ability to keep plays alive with his legs, more important has been his ability to activate JuJu Smith-Schuster and other key USC playmakers in what was previously a sluggish offense.

I do like USC in this game, but I’m not so sure about that point spread. USC is struggling with injuries right now; WR Steven Mitchell is out for the year and Smith-Schuster is banged up with a back injury. In addition, the Bears have been able to generate a ton of offense with Davis Webb’s short passing game and the gashing running of Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson.

USC’s defense will certainly be more of a test than Oregon’s was, but I think Cal will be able to post some points in front of an LA crowd that won’t likely show up until about halftime. I’m just not sure they can score enough after a short week of prep.

The Pick: Cal 34, USC 41

Rest of the PAC

Stanford at Arizona (+5.5)

Three months ago, this didn’t look like a game that would carry much intrigue. Now? I’m not so sure.

The Cardinal limp to Tucson wondering where in the world their offense has gone. For a team that has prided itself on toughness and endurance, it has shown remarkable softness on both sides of the line of scrimmage over the course of the last month. The offensive line has been a particular problem and has allowed for the effective neutralization of what was already a “replacement level” QB in Ryan Burns.

The Wildcats have endured a brutal run of injuries, especially at RB where starting WR Samajie Grant is now listed as the starter. On the plus side, they are are starting to return to health at QB with both Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon available. This is a boon to the Arizona offense and a reason that Vegas expects them to stick within 5.5 points of a Stanford team that will have RB Christian McCaffrey available and a new starting QB in Keller Chryst.

Sorry, I can’t see it. The Cardinal still have enough defense, with a rugged secondary and a disruptor in Solomon Thomas, to contain that Wildcat offense. I also can see David Shaw controlling the ball with his running game against that soft Wildcat middle. Chryst at QB is a wildcard, but one that I have a hunch will work out.

The Pick: Stanford 27, Arizona 14

Washington State and Oregon State (+13.5)

The Cougs are used to being the third best football team in the state of Washington. They are not used to controlling their own destiny this late in the season as it relates to the Rose Bowl.

Washington State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Saturday is a huge game for the Cougars. Not just because they are competing for a North championship, but because Oregon State is more dangerous than the typical fan will recognize.

The Beavers are in full rebuilding mode, to be sure. But with QB Marcus McMaryion making his first start of the season last week against Washington, a strange thing happened: OSU’s receivers began to break out of their long slumber. While he wasn’t great, he showed enough to make the passing attack a consideration for a team that likely won’t have RB Ryan Nall again this weekend.

The bigger question is whether or not a decent OSU defense can slow down the Coug passing attack. They likely won’t have CB Treston Decoud available to contain WRs Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. WSU is dealing with injuries of their own as QB Luke Falk took a beating at the hands of Arizona State a week ago. It creates a bit of drama around the issue of WSU’s rushing attack and whether or not they can establish it against what has been a very weak OSU run defense.

I’ve been saying for a while that OSU has the kind of toughness on D and competence on their O-Line that can enable the occasional upset to occur. At home on what will be a wet and cold night, I think the conditions are ripe. WSU has been lucky not to have had to face their opponents’ number one QBs for three straight weeks. This week, their luck runs out.

The Pick: Washington State 27, Oregon State 30

Arizona State at Oregon (-7.5)

It is about time for the Ducks to win a Pac-12 game. While their bowl chances look very dim, they are technically still alive. That gives the team something to play for, and a hook for the coaches to engage their players.

On paper, there isn’t any reason the Ducks shouldn’t dominate. While it is true that QB Justin Herbert has yet to face a team that blitzes like ASU does (ask Luke Falk if he thinks that ASU blitz game isn’t a problem), he has otherwise played beyond his years in his first two games as Oregon’s starter. Beyond Herbert, the Duck rushing attack has always been an effective counter-lever against ASU. With guys like Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin both playing at a pretty high level, I can see the Ducks posting more than 250 yards on the ground at home.

The Sun Devils are going to have a difficult time matching Oregon’s scoring. Freshman QB Dillon Sterling-Cole appears over his head as a fill-in for an injury-ravaged QB unit. The Devils will try to offset some of the pressure on their young QB by running Kalen Ballage out of the Wildcat formation (the “Sparky” package), but this is exactly the kind of thing that the beleagured Duck defense can use to establish a little bit of package. Defense is always easier when you know what is coming.

Give me the Ducks.

The Pick: Arizona State 30, Oregon 44