Jaffe: Lessons from bowl season

Jan. 13, 2011, 1:31 a.m.

Bowl season is over, college football is over, life as we know it is over. What can fill the void in our lives without the What Would You Do For a Klondike Bar Alaska Bowl? Clearly there’s only one answer: analyzing the last month of bowl games. Obviously.

Many questions are probably running through your head right now: Why would I want to spend more time thinking about college football after I had to sit through 35 bowl games and finish last in my bowl-picking pool? What is there to say about a bunch of games that already happened? Is there seriously a bowl game in Alaska?

The first question has an easy answer: college football is the greatest sport in the world, and we all need something to last us through the next eight months. Plus, the only way to justify your poor finish in your competition is to analyze the teams and find other people to blame for your ineptitude. The third question can be answered just as easily: just look at the ceiling right above you where someone wrote “gullible.” Or, if you prefer, wait a few months until the announcement of next year’s bowls, and the answer might very well change.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to concentrate on that second question.

Well, for starters, yet another bowl season brought us surprises that few people saw coming. Washington, a two-touchdown underdog, completely outclassed Nebraska, a team that clobbered the Huskies by five touchdowns just four months ago in Seattle. Tulsa, a double-digit underdog, destroyed Hawaii in Hawaii, scoring one point less than Boise State and Nevada had against the Warriors combined.

The biggest blowout came against an 11-1 team (Michigan State), and Troy scored more points than Auburn and Oregon combined. The Big East and the Sun Belt had winning records in bowl games, while the Big Ten and Big 12 had losing records. The two teams that managed the fewest points (Utah and Georgia) still rank in the top 30 nationally in points scored. The Big Ten went 0-5 on New Year’s Day games and 3-0 during the rest of the bowl season. The service academy that came in with the best record (Navy) was the only one of the three to lose.

On the other hand, a whole lot went according to plan. Of the 35 games, 23 were won by favorites. All 13 bowl games from Jan. 1 on were won by the favorites, and three of the five BCS games finished within two points of the point spread. The SEC, regarded by many as the nation’s best conference, won five bowl games, all by teams favored to win. Only six of the top 25 in the BCS standings lost to a team ranked below them.

Still, there is intrigue to be found in these bowl games. And while no one can legitimately claim that the Sun Belt is a better conference than the SEC just because it had a better bowl record, some facts about conferences can be quite illuminating.

The Pac-10 has a national reputation for its high-scoring offenses. A combination of Oregon’s spread offense and stars like Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Nick Foles and Jake Locker (who deserves an award for worst quarterback to be deemed a “star” on a mediocre team) have helped aid the Pac-10’s reputation as a finesse, offense-heavy conference that would struggle against more physical opponents.

Instead, the Pac-10 showed itself to be anything but an offense-heavy conference. Again, it’s a small sample size, but only one Pac-10 team out of four managed to score 20 points (you might remember who), and only one of the four “stars” had anywhere close to a good game (another one you might recall). On the other hand, only one of the four teams gave up more than 22 points (and that was to Oklahoma State, who got those points off four costly Arizona turnovers). Pac-10 teams gave up 19.3 points per game, fewer than the SEC (21.2), Big 12 (28.6) or Big Ten (30.9), despite playing the No. 3, No. 7, No. 21 and No. 38 scoring offenses in the country.

On the other hand, the much-maligned Big East, which has precisely zero of the top 50 scoring offenses in the country, averaged 25.3 points per game in the bowls. Half its bowl participants broke 30 points, even though they rank No. 63, No. 85 and No. 93 in scoring. That’s what makes bowl season great; you can predict all you want, but you’ll still be wrong.

In the end, six teams defied expectations more than any other. Troy, Tulsa, Illinois, Washington, Mississippi State and Stanford all beat their respective point spreads by at least 25 points. A third of these come from the Pac-10, and a third come from non-automatic qualifying conferences. Half of them are not even receiving votes in the AP Poll, but that doesn’t make their wins any less important.

Anyone who saw the looks on these teams’ faces, or those of Florida International (won its first ever bowl game on a last-second field goal), TCU (two-point victory in the Rose Bowl for its first ever BCS bowl win) and Army (two-point victory to secure program’s first winning season since 1996) can see the joy and passion that college football’s bowl season can bring. Sure, the system has flaws, and whether the BCS determines a true champion is a debate for another time.

What we do know is that these bowl games—all 35 of them—matter. They matter to the coaches, they matter to the players and they sure matter to the fans. Anyone complaining about the number of bowl games there are should pop in a tape of the Kansas State-Syracuse game. Two thoroughly unremarkable 7-5 teams put on a show for four quarters, something you’d be hard-pressed to say about almost any BCS bowl. And really, that’s what bowl season is all about.

So go ahead, Klondike, give me Arkansas State-Idaho in Anchorage next year. I can’t wait to watch.

Jacob Jaffe is entering an eight-month period of hibernation. Leave a message for when he awakens at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.

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