Within a disappointing bowl season for the Pac-12, which has no playoff participants and only one New Year’s Six team, lies opportunity.
Expectations are low: The conference is an underdog in five of its six matchups. If it can conjure an upside surprise, there’s momentum available heading into the offseason.
And it could use some momentum.
The regular season did nothing to boost its reputation.
The recruiting season looks dark and stormy.
Yes, coaching changes have provided some hope, but the on-field results always serve as judge and jury.
Over the next month, we’ll see the evidence.
All times Pacific
Odds taken from BetMGM
Regular season: 39-39-2
Five-star special: 5-9
LA Bowl: Oregon State (-7) vs. Utah State
Kickoff: Dec. 18 (4:30 p.m., ABC)
Comment: Difficult situation for the Beavers. In fact, it’s close to a no-win situation. They’re substantial favorites against a sneaky-good opponent that beat Washington State and San Diego State and will be extremely motivated to topple another Pac-12 school. OSU should bring its best effort for the program’s first bowl appearance in eight years, but is the defense, which has played poorly away from Reser Stadium, up to the task? The Beavers must establish their running game against a porous Utah State front seven that allows 4.4 yards per rush. We like the Aggies and the points. We love the Over (66). Pick: Utah State
Holiday Bowl: UCLA (+1) vs. N.C. State
Kickoff: Dec. 28 (5 p.m., FOX)
Comment: The line opened with N.C. State favored by 2.5 points and has since dropped — in some places, the Bruins are a slight favorite. Either way, there’s every reason to expect this to be in doubt with five minutes remaining. The Wolfpack has one of the top low-profile coaches in the country in Dave Doeren. His staff will craft a defensive strategy that attempts to limit UCLA’s running game and forces Dorian Thompson-Robinson to make plays from the pocket. But UCLA’s fate is likely tied to a wobbly defense that will face one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Devin Leary, who has 35 touchdowns, just five interceptions and an efficiency rating that ranks in the top 20 nationally. Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s unit is once again in the spotlight. Pick: N.C. State
Alamo Bowl: Oregon (+4) vs. Oklahoma
Kickoff: Dec. 29 (6:15 p.m., ESPN)
Comment: The ‘Interim Coach’ Bowl will match Bob Stoops on the Sooners’ sideline against Oregon fill-in Bryan McClendon. The former has won a national championship, but the latter isn’t entirely new to the role: McClendon served as Georgia’s interim coach for a bowl game six years ago. The dynamics are difficult to predict given the departures of Lincoln Riley and Mario Cristobal, especially with regard to focus and preparation. But we know Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown is struggling. We know Kayvon Thibodeaux isn’t playing, and we know the Ducks are battered and bruised. Neither team landed where it hoped in the postseason. But when urgency wanes, it’s easier to play offense than defense, and the Sooners have a better offense. Pick: Oklahoma
Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona State (+7) vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: Dec. 30 (7:30 p.m., ESPN)
Comment: The first edition of the upgraded Las Vegas Bowl, which has a new home (Allegiant Stadium), a new participant (the Big Ten) and a new date (post-Christmas). The Sun Devils will be without their top running backs: Chip Trayanum is in the transfer portal while star Rachaad White has decided to focus on the NFL Draft. That’s problematic for the Sun Devils because they failed to muster a consistent passing game and relied heavily on White for their offense down the stretch. (Third-year starter Jayden Daniels has thrown 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.) This is a typical Wisconsin team that prefers the power running game and plays stout defense. The closest Pac-12 equivalent is Utah, and that’s suboptimal for the Sun Devils. Pick: Wisconsin
Sun Bowl: Washington State (+2.5) vs. Miami
Kickoff: Dec. 31 (9 a.m., CBS)
Comment: The Cougars just elevated their interim coach (Jake Dickert) to the permanent job, while the Hurricanes have hired a head coach (Mario Cristobal) but will use an interim for the bowl game (assistant Jess Simpson). That’s an advantage for the Cougars, whose players are less likely to lose focus and wonder about their future once the new leadership takes over. WSU won six of its last eight games and seemingly has enough momentum to carry through the long pre-bowl layoff. The Hurricanes are fairly average everywhere, which explains their 7-5 record (and the coaching change). Good chance for WSU’s run-and-shoot to end an impressive season with a memorable performance. Pick: Washington State
Rose Bowl: Utah (+6.5) vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: Jan. 1 (2 p.m., ABC)
Comment: It might be tempting for some fans to base their assessment of the Granddaddy matchup on each team’s performance against Oregon, but that feels a bit skewed. (The Buckeyes are much better now than they were in Week Two.) Our preference is to use Michigan as the proxy, because the Wolverines and Utes have similar styles, with an emphasis on the running game and active, hard-charging defenses. Ohio State couldn’t stop Michigan, and we’re not sure it will have any more success with the Utes. We expect Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud to play well in front of friends and family — he grew up a few miles from the Rose Bowl, in Rancho Cucamonga — but that high-powered offense will spend most of the game on the sideline if OSU’s defense cannot stop Utah’s ground-and-pound attack. Pick: Utah
Straight-up winners: Oregon State, N.C. State, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Washington State and Utah
Five-star special: Utah. Their bond is too tight, their journey has been too difficult and their momentum is too great for the Utes to miss this chance. The first Rose Bowl in school history will prove worth the wait.
Support the Hotline: Receive three months of unlimited access for just 99 cents. Yep, that’s 99 cents for 90 days, with the option to cancel anytime. Details are here, and thanks for your support.
*** Send suggestions, comments and tips (confidentiality guaranteed) to email@example.com or call 408-920-5716
*** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline
*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.