Mailbag: Holiday Bowl blues

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
5:30
PM PT
First off, a great, big thank you to everyone who sent Merry Christmas notes to the mailbag. They were received ... and appreciated.

To the notes!

Alex in Las Vegas writes: Hi Kevin: What is it that causes Pac 12 teams to lay eggs repeatedly at the Holiday Bowl? The Big 12 teams always seem to show up.

Kevin Gemmell: Though no one actually comes out and says it, there seems to be a vibe around the Pac-12 team at the National University Holiday Bowl the last few years that it somehow feel slighted or miffed to be there. Consider ASU this season. Technically speaking, it was the runner-up in the Pac-12 after losing to Stanford in the title game. But the Valero Alamo Bowl, which has the first pick of Pac-12 teams after the BCS, opted for an Oregon team that lost two conference games.

Same thing last year with UCLA -- which was the league runner-up and won its division. But it was passed over for Oregon State.

There is also something to be said for the delay between the end of the season and the actual bowl game. A lot happens to teams in three weeks. Some teams come in prepared. Other don’t. And a lot of times it’s a crap shoot on what you’re going to get. I’m pretty confident that if Arizona State played Texas Tech in early November, the Sun Devils would have rolled the Red Raiders.

But Texas Tech had that us-vs.-the-world mentality that they rallied around when no one gave them a chance. This game is a built-in trap game for the Pac-12, because the Pac-12 team is usually perceived to be the “better” of the two teams so the Big 12 team has nothing to lose.

It hasn’t been totally one-sided. Washington topped Nebraska in 2009. Oregon beat OSU in 2008 and Cal beat Texas A&M in 2006. Washington State’s last bowl appearance -- prior to this season -- was a 28-20 win over Texas in 2003.

But I’ve said many times that motivation plays a huge role in the postseason. One team looked motivated to be there last night. The other didn’t.

Dave in Bend, Ore. writes: Wilcox or Pendergast? Which one can stop run-first spread offenses with mobile QBs? USC made improvements in its defensive stats overall. While USC showed it can handle the pro style of pass-centric offenses (Stanford, BC & Fresno State) the Trojans had horrible defensive games against ASU and UCLA. The defense was also fortunate to miss both [Keith] Price and [Marcus] Mariota. Perhaps this helped the stats. Don't get me wrong if Pendergast stays (stayed), I think he might be fine but it is far from a slam dunk considering the road back to the top of the Pac 12 goes through schools with mobile QBs.

Gemmell: Well, it’s official that Justin Wilcox is headed to USC, which means an extremely good coordinator in Clancy Pendergast is going to be on the market. And I’m willing to bet Mark Helfrich has already made that phone call.

I’m guessing you’re referring to last week’s mailbag where I broke down the improvements Wilcox and Pendergast brought to their respective programs. But you raise an interesting point about the mobile QBs/spread offenses. So I took a look at how USC and Washington both faired against ASU and UCLA -- two of the schools you brought up. And the numbers are actually pretty similar.

Against both of those teams, USC gave up an average of 48.5 points, 504 total yards, 279.5 passing yards, 224.5 rushing yards, 79.5 quarterback rushing yards and two QB rushing touchdowns. Washington gave up an average of 47 points, 495.5 total yards, 227.5 passing yards, 268 rushing yards, 49.5 QB rushing yards and two QB rushing touchdowns.

So both USC and Washington struggled against those teams. And when you factor in Oregon, which Washington played but USC didn’t, the Huskies gave up 45 points, 631 total yards, 366 in the air, 265 on the ground and 88 yards and a touchdown to Mariota.

Both are outstanding coordinators and coaches and both know how to scheme. But sometimes the guys on the other side of the field are just better at what they do. And in the case of Washington and USC this season, they didn’t have the answers. It doesn’t mean one coordinator is “better” than the other. Most teams in the country struggled against UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State.

USC is getting an outstanding coordinator. Whomever gets Pendergast is going to get an outstanding coordinator. And my hope is that he stays in the Pac-12 because the league is better off with him in it.

Pac-12 fan in Reno writes: Kevin - I'm disappointed that you have allowed yourself to be duped into believing that AU is going to be scary good next season. Yes, the Wildcats have some good WRs and 8 or 9 scholarship QBs (he-he), but it takes more than that to win in the Pac-12. A defense and an O-line can come in handy in our conference. I don't see how some me-first transfers and malcontents are going to change the outlook. They will win 7 games with their SEC-like nonconference schedule, but will find the going awfully tough in the Pac-12 without Ka'Deem [Carey]. AU is a basketball school that has reached its football ceiling. Go Dawgs!!

Kevin Gemmell: I agree. It does take more than wide receivers. And I certainly don’t ever remember saying that Arizona was going to win the Pac-12. I believe the quote I used in last week’s mailbag was: “But Arizona does indeed have some scary potential next year.”

Potential being the operative word.

I still think the balance of power lies in the North Division until proven otherwise. There have been three Pac-12 championship games, and the North has won all three. Until that changes, it is still the dominant division.

However, I do think Arizona has a bunch of talented players coming off the scout team who could make them more competitive in the South Division -- which is pretty wide open. Cayleb Jones, Davonte’ Neal and Austin Hill coming back from injuries certainly are a massive boost.

But the question with Arizona is still going to be quarterback. B.J. Denker did a better job as the season progressed in the passing game, but his greatest asset was as a runner. Whomever is the starter in 2014 will likely have more a down-the-field presence than Denker did. And with that amazing wide receiver corps, they are going to do some damage offensively.

As for Rich Rodriguez, well, I think it’s just silly to say Arizona has reached its football ceiling. Just as I think it’s silly to classify the Wildcats as just a basketball school. They have spent plenty of time through the years as a ranked team. And yes, I am a RichRod fan. Not because his name is fun to say. But because he’s an offensive innovator, and his teams are fun to watch. And the fact that he’s had them in back-to-back bowl games speaks to the potential of the program.

If you really want to know what went on at Michigan, read Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football by John U. Bacon. That’ll tell you all you need to know.

Arizona might not win the Pac-12 South next season, but I can promise you the Wildcats are a team no one is looking forward to playing.

Caleb in Spokane, Wash. writes: Hi Kevin. Do you think that the Cougs losing that bowl game will hurt the quality of the players they get in the offseason? I am a die-hard Coug but seeing the worst "Couging it" of all-time, I am worried about the players for next year. Also, do you think the Cougs should stick with Connor Halliday?

Kevin Gemmell: I think Mike Leach will open up the competition, but I’d be surprised if Halliday doesn’t retain the job. There is no substitute for experience, and when you look at his numbers over the final five games, you can see a pretty clear improvement in his efficiency with 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. Even taking away the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, it’s still 10 touchdowns to four interceptions.

Then again, Leach has been known to play fast and loose with his quarterbacks, so who knows?

As for how the bowl loss impacts recruiting, I don’t think it’s going to be significant. You can check out their recruiting page here, and as you can see, there are some pretty good prospects coming in -- including a couple of highly-rated running backs.

If you’re Leach and his staff, you sell the immediate progress the program has made in just two seasons. This was supposed to be the final rebuilding year before a push to the postseason in 2014. But Leach had his own agenda, and you look back at games like USC, Arizona and Utah as the difference-makers.

The Cougars took a very big step forward, and despite the bowl loss, momentum is on their side. I think they keep it rolling into recruiting and into next year. A couple more seasons under Leach, and the Cougars could be in that eight-nine win range.

Adam in Los Angeles writes: Brett Hundley staying or going. Discuss.

Kevin Gemmell: I’m of the opinion that if Jim Mora would have gone elsewhere, then Hundley certainly would have gone. It wouldn’t have made sense for him to stick around one more season with a third head coach, a third coordinator and a third offensive system. As I previously wrote somewhere else (it all blurs, might have been a column or a story or a chat), if he’s going to learn a third system, it might as well be in the NFL.

But the fact that UCLA ponied up and extended Mora -- and more specifically gave more money to his assistants -- bodes well for his chances of staying for another season. The draft landscape is interesting next year with Mariota and Bryce Petty and maybe Jameis Winston all in the mix.

In 2013, Hundley upped his completion percentage and his raw and adjusted QBR. He took fewer sacks and threw fewer interceptions. If he can refine that raw talent just a little bit more, he could play himself into possibly being a top-five NFL pick.

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