The conference of ‘champions’

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For the college football faithful, bowl season is supposed to be a holiday-themed, three-week show of the sport’s finest playmakers, coaches and teams. And even when big names such as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey last year and UCLA’s Josh Rosen last week decide to sit out at the last minute, there’s still plenty at stake. Earning bragging rights, appealing to recruits and allowing for alumni to congregate one final time before March Madness are just a few of the factors that make bowl season an event unlike any other.

But with No. 8 USC’s sloppy, uncharacteristic — dare I say, pathetic — effort in its 24-7 loss to No. 5 Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, the Pac-12 conference capped off a god-awful 1-8 collective bowl game showing. Aside from Kyle Whittingham’s valiant Utes facing a gutted West Virginia team missing its star quarterback, the Pac-12 teams fell like dominoes, just as they have all year during conference play.

Sure, the Buckeyes played with a major chip on their shoulders after being narrowly edged out of the College Football Playoff. But in what was likely their final collegiate contests, J.T. Barrett cemented his Buckeye legacy, while Sam Darnold looked as if he was already a Cleveland Brown with the pressure of being the favored No. 1 overall pick. It’s only fitting that while the Pac-12 won just one game, the Big Ten lost just once.

After Oregon started slowly and never fully recovered against Boise State, the West Coast conglomerate found itself in a position it’s been all too familiar with this season: unpredictable and inconsistent. This was embodied perhaps no better than in Mike Leach’s Washington State squad that threw backup Tyler Hilinski into his first career start — and also into the waiting mouths of Michigan State’s revived defense.

For his part, Rosen made a good point about understanding the circumstances that projected NFL draftees face when considering the pros and cons of participating in postseason play — all while intending to play. Then, about 15 minutes before game time, anxious fans around the nation received an alert announcing that the Bruins were ruling the projected first-rounder out with a concussion, all but ensuring the eventual Kansas State 35-17 victory. Make that two backup quarterbacks starting in postseason play.

With bowl matchups in general, there is an aspect of luck involved in favorable matchups, something that No. 13 Stanford running back and Heisman runner-up Bryce Love was able to exploit in providing the Cardinal with an early big lead over No. 15 TCU. Luck slapped the Pac-12 in the face, however, when Love reaggravated one of the numerous injuries he’s pushed through all season long and was on the sideline as K.J. Costello struggled mightily down the stretch.

As for Arizona and No. 11 Washington, better teams simply got the best of them, but both teams have bright futures with young budding stars. For Arizona State, playing its final game before recently hired Herm Edwards gets another crack at coaching was distracting enough, not to mention North Carolina State’s prolific offense. I should mention that the Ducks and Bruins both dealt with coaching changes as well, but who isn’t at this time of year?

As for the Cal fans finding out just now that there are, in fact, games after conference play concludes for teams with at least a .500 record: Maybe someday we’ll get our own shot to lose in December as well. Someday.

Talk about ending things on a high note. In fact, every team in the Pac-12 not named Utah lost its last game of the season, bowl game or not. The Conference of Champions, at least this year in the NCAA’s most popular sport, is far from the top. The Pac-12 didn’t just lose. It got smacked.

So there you go, Pac-12 faithful. With no established leader throughout most of the season, the conference got exactly what it deserved in postseason play: a massive L. Perhaps the nightmare of a season that the Pac-12 suffered will spark a return to respectability in the year to come, but for now, it’s the last dog to the bowl — literally.

Josh Yuen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].