Once again, USC proved that the Rose Bowl is an annual mismatch.
Pundits said that this year was going to different. Penn State wasn’t like the other Big Ten teams the Trojans had easily defeated the past two years. The Nittany Lions were quicker and more potent on offense, and they would give Pete Carroll’s team a run for its money.
Instead, quarterback Mark Sanchez led a monstrous first half for USC, who led 31-7 after 30 minutes and never really looked back en route to a comfortable 38-24 victory.
In his postgame interview, USC coach Pete Carroll said, “I don’t think anyone can beat the Trojans.”
So why not give them the chance to?
No, I’m not talking about a playoff—at least not right now. A playoff would in all likelihood be great for college football, but the odds of one taking place in the next few years are slim to none.
I’m talking about fixing the real biggest problem with the BCS right now: the Rose Bowl.
As part of its storied tradition, the Rose Bowl is designed to annually feature the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions in a classic matchup to determine conference supremacy. There’s only one problem: The Big Ten representative has not won the Rose Bowl since 2000.
Over the past seasons, the Rose Bowl has welcomed a Big Ten representative six times. Those representatives are 0-6, with the last Big Ten victory coming when Wisconsin beat Stanford in the 2000 contest.
But that’s only the beginning of the story. The six Big Ten representatives have been outscored by a combined 85 points (that’s an average of 14 points per game), and only one of the six teams failed to lose by double digits—Michigan, in 2005.
The immediate story is even worse. During the past three Rose Bowls, USC has outscored its Big Ten counterparts 119-59. That’s an average of 20 points per game.
The Big Ten isn’t just losing. It isn’t even competitive.
In College Football Community Leader Lisa Horne’s recent article, “Dear World Wide Leader in Sports: Thanks for Nothing,” she discusses what she perceives as a mainstream media bias against the Pac-10 and its effect on the class of the conference, USC. More generally, she discusses the problem of making generalizations about teams based on conferences.
But in college football, each team plays at least two-thirds of its regular season games against conference opponents. Throw in the fact that most teams play at least two or three “cupcakes” in non-conference competition, and suddenly there are very few interconference matchups by which to judge teams.
What college football does give us is bowl games, and over the past three seasons the bowl games have shown that the Big Ten is clearly inferior. Combine the drubbings in the past two national championship games with the three Rose Bowl losses, and Big Ten representatives have five double-digit losses in their past five BCS bowl appearances.
So how can we not consider conference success in the Big Ten as less impressive than conference success in leagues such as the SEC or Big 12?
The Pac-10 has the exact same problem as the Big Ten: Namely, that the recent failures of the Big Ten have made it harder for Pac-10 teams to earn national respect, just like they have made it harder for Big Ten teams to earn national respect. Which brings me back to the Rose Bowl.
In the current college football environment, bowl games—specifically those on New Year’s Day or later, and even more specifically BCS bowls—are the best way for a conference to assert its supremacy. By sending its champion to the Rose Bowl to slaughter a Big Ten opponent each year, the Pac-10 is missing out on this opportunity.
The problem for the Pac-10 is that, when USC crushes a Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl, USC’s success isn’t the story. The Big Ten’s failure is. The majority of the country considers the outcome a validation of their beliefs about the Big Ten—“Of course USC won easily, they were playing a team with worse athletes"—as opposed to a confirmation of USC as a great football team and of the Pac-10 as a great football league.
If the Pac-10 wants to establish itself as an elite football conference, it needs to break away from the chains of the Rose Bowl and start pitting its top teams against the cream of the SEC and Big 12 in BCS bowls.
Only the Pac-10 can fix this problem. The Rose Bowl has no reason to change its arrangement—it is an extremely well-watched affair and is the only BCS bowl with its own television contract.
The Big Ten is perfectly fine with things as they are: Cutting ties with the Rose Bowl would only mean less prestigious bowl appearances and smaller paychecks for its teams.
It is the Pac-10 that is suffering, and there is only one solution.
The Pac-10 must cut ties with the Rose Bowl.
Breaking with tradition would enable the Pac-10 to prove itself against the nation’s heavyweights. Instead of easily defeating Penn State on Jan. 1, the Trojans could have matched up with Texas in the Fiesta Bowl this season.
Last year, USC could have played a hot Georgia team in the Sugar Bowl instead of annihilating an overmatched Illinois team. These top-five matchups could have gone a long way towards validating the Trojans as an elite team and the Pac-10 as an elite conference.
There is a lot to be said for tradition in college football. But tradition is holding the Pac-10 back right now.
The Pac-10 needs to stop sending its champion to the Rose Bowl. Otherwise, Pete Carroll will once again just be talking about how his team deserves to play against the best teams in the nation next January.