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Why Was Utah the Lone Pac-12 Team to Win a Bowl Game?

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NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Utah vs West Virginia Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Pac-12 has wrapped its disastrous bowl season, we will perform an autopsy to try to figure out why only Utah won their bowl game. Before we get started, we want to commend the Utah Utes and head coach Kyle Whittingham, and his insane 11-1 bowl record, which is tied for the most bowl wins among active head coaches with Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Utah as a program is tied with Washington for the second-most bowl wins among Pac-12 Conference teams with 17 bowl wins (USC has the most with 34), and Utah has the best bowl winning percentage of any Power Five team. When Utah gets to bowl games, they usually win them, especially under Whittingham.

So, how did the Pac-12 manage to go 1-8 in bowl games this year, which is the worst winning percentage for a Power Five conference that played a minimum of five bowl games? There are a few factors that we will go through that contributed to the poor performances by the Pac-12. It is worth noting that the lone bowl win by Utah was in a bowl game not affiliated with the Pac-12, as Utah was filling a Conference USA spot in the game.

Poor Bowl Match Ups for the Pac-12

Six out of the nine Pac-12 bowl teams were underdogs in their bowl games. The Oregon Ducks were favors by a touchdown over the Boise State Broncos in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Arizona Wildcats were favored by just under a field goal against the Purdue Boilermakers in the Foster Farms Bowl, and Utah was a touchdown favorite over the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. In all four of the Pac-12 bowl games between ranked teams, the Pac-12 team was the underdog. Six Pac-12 teams faced ranked opponents in bowl season, and only in one case was the Pac-12 team ranked higher (the Stanford Cardinal were ranked higher than the TCU Horned Frogs in the Alamo Bowl, yet TCU was favored). Oregon and Arizona State both faced ranked opponents, Boise State and N.C. State respectively, as unranked teams. It seems a bit surprising that Oregon was favored in the Vegas Bowl honestly. The UCLA Bruins are a good example of a Pac-12 team drawing a poor matchup. UCLA had to play the Kansas State Wildcats in the Cactus Bowl. The UCLA defense cannot stop the run, and that is the entire K-State offense, it went as poorly as you might expect, UCLA lost 35-17.

Half of the Pac-12 teams lost to teams from the Big 10 Conference. The Big 10’s bowl season has been as historically good as the Pac-12’s has been historically bad. The Big 10 has won three New Year’s Six bowl games and is undefeated in bowl games. Having to play four games against the Big 10 in this postseason has not been a good thing for the Pac-12. The physicality of the Big 10 teams has been too much for their Pac-12 opponents.

Motivation

USC, Utah, and Washington were all motivated for their bowl games, given the fact that Utah won and USC and Washington were both playing in New Year’s Six bowl games. Stanford also was likely motivated to play in the Alamo Bowl since it was a bowl game between ranked teams, and they jumped out to a 21-3 lead.

When we consider teams like the Arizona State Sun Devils, Oregon Ducks, and UCLA Bruins, one has to wonder how motivated they were to play in their bowl games. All three teams lost their head coaches. It is no wonder that all three of those teams lost. Likely, none of those teams were fired up to play their bowl game with so much turnover on the coaching staffs.

Players Sitting Out or Injured

Several of the top players in the Pac-12 that were in lower tier bowl games did not play either due to injury or preparation for the NFL Draft. Oregon was without star running back Royce Freeman, who chose not to play in the Vegas Bowl to prepare for the NFL. UCLA was missing quarterback Josh Rosen, who could be the first pick the in 2018 NFL Draft due to a concussion. Freeman and Rosen might not have been enough to help their teams get bowl wins, especially since both teams likely were not motivated to play due to coaching changes, but they both would have helped their respective teams.

The Washington State Cougars were without quarterback Luke Falk due to injury. The Cougars were also missing defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa to start the game because he was suspended for the first half due to a targeting penalty in the second half of the Apple Cup but did appear in the second half after the game was out of hand. Wide receivers Tavares Martin Jr., Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Robert Lewis, and running back Gerard Wicks were also all out due to injury or transfer. With so much talent out and a month for the Michigan State Spartans to prepare for the gimmicky WSU air raid offense, it is no wonder WSU lost the Holiday Bowl.

When we consider all these points, it begins to inform us how things went so wrong for the Pac-12. Still, I never would have guessed the Pac-12 would go 1-8 in bowl games. A losing record seemed like a strong possibility, but I would have thought a few Pac-12 teams would have gotten Ws besides Utah. Arizona and Stanford are two that really should have won. They lost by a combined five points. Stanford was up 21-3 before losing 39-37 to TCU. Arizona is a better team than Purdue. Neither team had a massive number of players out or many coaching changes. Those are two losses that likely leave Pac-12 fans scratching their heads. Washington also seemed like they would be able to beat Penn State. UW has the best defense in the conference, and head coach Chris Petersen has a great track record in big games, but UW fell behind 28-7 and could not quite mount a comeback, coming just short. The Pac-12 Conference has a lot to figure out after the disaster that was the 2017 bowl season.