In many ways, the 2015-2016 Pac-12 bowl season was reminiscent of the 2014-2015 Big 12 bowl season. One heavyweight delivered a knockout punch. The other one was leading by a large margin on points after 12 rounds… but got KO’d in the 15th.
Remember the bowl season a year ago? TCU crushed Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, while Baylor led Michigan State, 41-21, in the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl, in a domed Texas stadium. Somehow, Baylor allowed that lead to slip away in a 42-41 loss which changed the way we thought of the Big 12 after the 2014 season.
For the Pac-12, this just-completed bowl season (only the natty is left between Alabama and Clemson) carries a familiar flavor and pattern.
When Stanford annihilated Iowa in the Rose Bowl, the Pac-12 North — the better of the two divisions in the conference over the course of the regular season — moved to a 4-0 record in the bowls. An Oregon win in the Alamo Bowl over Trevone Boykin-less TCU would have given the Pac-12 North a 5-0 mark, lifting the league to a seventh bowl win (Arizona and Utah winning from the Pac-12 South). Had the North run the table, and had the Pac-12 checked in just one win behind the SEC this bowl season, the conference would have been able to tout its credentials with a little more clarity.
Everyone could see that Oregon, with Vernon Adams healthy, was a very good team in 2015… and on the second night of 2016. Yet, it’s not as though TCU was ever able to put its own top quarterback on the field in San Antonio, and somehow, Gary Patterson and his staff were able to turn around Bram Kohlhausen at halftime. Oregon and Mark Helfrich utterly whiffed in terms of having backup quarterback Jeff Lockie ready to play once Adams left with an injury.
Adams’s departure leaves Oregon with an excuse for its Alamo Bowl loss, but there’s never a particularly convincing reason for blowing a 31-0 lead. Lockie, by any reasonable measurement, should have been able to guide his offense to at least a few first downs in the second half, instead of an 18-yard performance whose utter lack of production enabled TCU to do the unthinkable.
So went the whole of the 2015 Pac-12 season. Just when teams seemed to be on the verge of sustaining a high level of performance, they couldn’t see things through to the end.
Utah beat Oregon, 62-20… and then reverted to its painfully familiar November offense in Salt Lake City.
UCLA started the season authoritatively… and then delivered home-field clunkers against Arizona State and Washington State.
Wazzu enjoyed a great season and bolstered the Pac-12’s quality depth. Yet, the Cougars did lose that home game to an FCS opponent in week one.
California looked like a real contender… and then Jared Goff started facing real defenses. The Golden Bears also couldn’t tackle — kind of a remotely important problem.
USC was poorly coached this season and defeated no team of consequence… unless you view Utah and UCLA as teams of consequence. The Trojans and athletic director Pat Haden stayed within the program to find the next permanent head coach. Based on a bowl loss to a Wisconsin team which had struggled in the regular season, it’s hard to have a sunny outlook in Los Angeles heading into next season.
Arizona State led Utah in the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City, but poor play selection doomed the Sun Devils in an endlessly aggravating season which was punctuated by the worst-coached bowl game out of all 40 on Saturday.
Arizona, dogged by injuries, was never able to be its best self.
The Pac-12 season is over, but in many ways, it never did end — this was an unfinished symphony, a story of tasks not quite completed and goals not quite met. The Pac-12 South aspired to be the new SEC West, the best division in college football. It clearly regressed this past season, such that it has to hit the reset button in 2016. UCLA has the high-end talent to make a run at the College Football Playoff, but #BRUINING is the sad-trombone college football hashtag of choice. Jim Mora, Jr. has a lot to overcome when September rolls around.
The Pac-12 could have been the best conference in college football this past season, but nearly every attempt to reach for the stars came up empty. Stanford — consistent, reliable, relentless — did its part, but the rest of the conference (with the partial exception of Washington State) was unable to find itself in 2015.