Winners and Losers of Bowl Season

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2013

Winners and Losers of Bowl Season

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    College football bowl season is unlike anything else in sports, but it's not just about winning the game. Bowl season produces winners and losers off the field too. We want to look at what a particular bowl appearance—win or lose—can do for a player, coach or program.

    How will the SEC's setbacks affect the conference down the stretch? Will the Big Ten's modest gains translate into future success?

    With the 2012-13 football campaign now in the rear-view mirror, let's take a look back at the winners and losers from the college football bowl season.

Winner: Michigan Wolverines

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    Sure, Michigan came up short against South Carolina in the 2013 Outback Bowl, but one thing we took away from this game was the bright future of Michigan football.

    The Wolverines were just 11 seconds from a victory over a solid SEC program—a win that would have been very damaging to the SEC supremacy argument. Even with the South Carolina win, SEC fans have to admit that the Big Ten is a lot closer today than it was a few seasons back.

    Michigan might be losing the best athlete in the conference in senior Denard Robinson. But despite that creating an insurmountable hole on offense, it gives head coach Brady Hoke an opportunity to do what he has wanted to do from the beginning: rebuild Michigan football into Michigan football.

    Robinson was just too good to leave off the field, but he wasn't a good enough quarterback to lead Michigan to that long-elusive Big Ten title. With the Rich Rodriguez years—and Big East-style recruits—now fading into the past, the narrow loss to South Carolina has us believing that Michigan can contend for a conference crown next season.

Loser: Bob Stoops

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    We're pretty sure you can all see where this is heading. Our indictment of Bob Stoops won't take long.

    Despite winning at least a share of eight Big 12 titles over his 14 seasons at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops has again cemented his position as the big-time coach that can't win the big-time games.

    Stoops may have led the Sooners to a championship in the 2001 Orange Bowl, but since then, he's just 2-5 in BCS games (and those two wins were against Washington State and Connecticut).

    Add in a loss to Texas A&M in the 2013 Cotton Bowl Classic, and we suddenly see a picture of a coach that can win most games that matter—as long as the game isn't played in January.

    Stoops' record stands at 149-36, which is more than adequate to ensure he'll remain employed at Oklahoma for about as long as he wants. But the constant losing in the biggest games against the biggest opponents has to be wearing thin on fans.

Winner: South Carolina Gamecocks

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    There's no other way to describe South Carolina's win over Michigan than impressive. The Gamecocks overcame bad calls, worse spots and terrible measurements to snatch a victory from the Wolverines with just 11 seconds remaining.

    The Gamecocks have always been one of the “almost, but not quite” teams in the SEC, but with so much talent returning—particularly Heisman hopeful and Bednarik front-runner Jadeveon Clowney—for 2013 and some killer momentum from the win in the 2013 Outback Bowl, next season may just turn out to be South Carolina's year.

Loser: Purdue Boilermakers

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    That's about all we have to say about Purdue's bowl performance this season. The Boilermakers entered the Heart of Dallas Bowl against Oklahoma State as the biggest underdog of the 2012-13 bowl season on the short end of a 17.5-point spread. Oklahoma State covered that spread.

    Two-and-a-half times over.

    The 58-14 drubbing was the worst in Purdue bowl history, and it showed exactly why head coach Danny Hope was fired before the bowl game. But even with Darrell Hazell heading over from Kent State to try to put the Purdue Special back on the tracks, we have some serious doubts about the future.

    First, Hazell lost his own bowl game this season ( Bowl against Arkansas State on Jan. 6). Sure, the Golden Flashes won 11 games in 2012, but the three losses included a 33-point embarrassment to Kentucky.

    Just how bad was Kentucky this season? The 2-10 Wildcats' only other win was a 31-point victory against 7-4 Samford from the FCS.

    To put it another way, we're just not confident Hazell's 2012 Kent State wasn't a Golden Flash in the pan. All those potential recruits thinking about heading to West Lafayette only need to look at the box score from the Heart of Dallas Bowl to begin exploring other options.

Winner: Big Ten

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    OK, so the Big Ten didn't go gangbusters this bowl season. Michigan State and Northwestern were the only two winners, and the five losses included some ugliness. But it wasn't all bad news for the once-dominant Big Ten.

    In fact, the positives might very well outweigh the negatives for the 2012-13 bowl season.

    Both the Michigan State and Northwestern wins were against opponents favored to win: MSU knocked off the Big 12's TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, while Northwestern topped the mighty SEC's Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

    Even though the conference lost its remaining five bowls, it wasn't as if Big Ten teams were just blown completely off the field—with the exception of Purdue, which is just terrible.

    Five-loss Wisconsin went toe-to-toe with Stanford in the Rose Bowl before losing by six, Michigan nearly pulled off a win against South Carolina save for the last 11 seconds and Texas Tech squeaked by Minnesota by a field goal.

    Years from now, no one will remember that these games were so close: Wins and losses are all that matter historically. But could these nail-biters be a sign of things to come? Is the Big Ten really that close to turning things around?

    A touchdown here and a field goal there, and who knows what will happen?

Loser: Collin Klein

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    When Kansas State was playing for a national championship berth earlier this season, Collin Klein and the Wildcats laid the mother of all eggs against Baylor. That loss not only kept the Wildcats away from Miami on Jan. 7, it probably killed Klein's Heisman campaign as well.

    But Klein had one last chance to not only prove himself to the college football world, but also show NFL scouts that he could be successful as a quarterback at the next level. Unfortunately, the Fiesta Bowl looked eerily similar to that crushing loss to Baylor back in November.

    Kansas State hung around in the first half, but down the stretch, Oregon proved the hypothesis first theorized by Baylor: A fast and disciplined defense can shut down Collin Klein and the Kansas State offense.

    With Oregon's quick-strike, high-powered, high-flying offense, K-State needed Klein to be at his absolute best to stand a chance. Instead, Oregon pressured Klein in the backfield while sealing his receivers with smothering coverage downfield.

    Two-yard runs and four-yard passes were all Klein could manage against the Ducks, and that will never be enough to knock off a team like Oregon.

    Klein's performance in the Fiesta Bowl proved one thing: No. 7 is good, not great.

Winner: Pat Fitzgerald

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    There used to be some truisms about the Big Ten that were pretty undeniable: Either Michigan or Ohio State would win the conference title every year, and dates with Northwestern were always good for a win.

    Not so much these days.

    As some non-traditional powers have risen to the top, Northwestern hasn't missed its chance to build the program into something it's never been accused of being: a perennial winner. Wildcats fans have Pat Fitzgerald to thank for that.

    Fitzgerald, a former linebacker for Northwestern, has guided his alma mater to a 50-39 record over seven seasons. The 2012 season included the program's first 10-win campaign since 1995 and the first bowl victory since Harry Truman was in the Oval Office.

    Fitzgerald has also led Northwestern to five consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history—although you can take that with a grain of salt, as there weren't dozens of bowl games “back in the day.”

    No matter how you look at Fitzgerald's tenure in Evanston, it's impossible to deny that these aren't your grandfather's Wildcats any more.

Loser: Will Muschamp

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    The Florida Gators were massive favorites against Louisville in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, and for good reason. The Gators were the No. 3 team in the nation, had one of the top defenses and were just a few points shy of playing for the conference championship in the almighty SEC. Across the field were the two-loss co-champions of the “Big Least.”

    No one gave Louisville a shot, least of all SEC wonks like ESPN's David Pollack.

    Even Pollack, who has never bet against the SEC in anything, had to confess that this was an impressive win for the Cardinals:

    Still amazed about what Louisville just did. Their defense stepped up like they haven't all year. I was so wrong.

    — David Pollack(@davidpollack47) January 3, 2013

    What's not so impressive is what happened on the Florida sidelines. Not only were the Gators completely outplayed while the Gator defense was on the field, but the already lackluster offense couldn't put a solid scoring drive together all night.

    One really has to wonder how strong the SEC was this season if Florida made it through nearly unscathed just to be utterly dismantled and humiliated by one of four Big East title holders from 2012.

    Will Muschamp seemed shell-shocked through most of the evening, and his Gators were unable to crack a defense that gave up 45 points to Syracuse.

    Of the Gators' two offensive touchdowns on the night, one came thanks to a trick play successful only because Louisville didn't have a timeout to adjust to an odd formation. The typically stout Florida defense gave up 266 passing yards and a season-worst (by far) 33 points.

    The success of Florida football rests in the hands of Will Muschamp, but in this season's Sugar Bowl, he looked like a receiver with the dropsies.

Winner: Teddy Bridgewater and Charlie Strong

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    Yes, we're still gushing over Louisville's impressive win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and it's not going to be the last time you hear about it over the next several months. After all, we're not done watching Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater take snaps in college.

    There's little doubt that Bridgewater can use the win over the Gators to launch a 2013 Heisman campaign. Even if he doesn't, you can bet Louisville fans everywhere will be working “Bridgewater” and “Heisman” into the same sentence at every opportunity.

    As shocking as the Louisville win was, it wasn't the most shocking thing to happen to the Cardinals program during bowl season.

    Head coach Charlie Strong was reported to be the top candidate to replace the fired Derek Dooley at Tennessee. We all expected Strong to order his first pair of orange pants immediately following the Sugar Bowl.

    But in an era of coaches fishing for the next big paycheck and the Bret Bielemas of the world trading loyalty for money, Strong did the unthinkable: He turned down a cushy, well-paid SEC job to stay at Louisville.

    Maybe that's because Strong knows exactly what kind of success is possible next season at Louisville with Teddy Bridgewater taking the snaps.

Loser: Lane Kiffin

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    We never really thought it possible, but USC is beginning to lose its swagger. Trojans fans have head coach Lane Kiffin to thank.

    It's hard enough to recruit to a program when you're dealing with lingering NCAA sanctions that limit scholarship numbers, but add in a shocking 7-6 finish to a season in which the Trojans started as the No. 1 team in America, and all of a sudden, the fanbase stages a nutty and potential recruits begin to weigh other options.

    So what's wrong in Trojan country these days? Look no further than Kiffin. His odd behavior, ranging from claiming the Pac-12 and its officials lied to him, costing the Trojans a victory, to lying to the media about his poll ballot and walking away from reporters like a spoiled child, can't help matters.

    Just in case you didn't think that was enough to turn off even the most dedicated and committed recruit, there's that just plain mind-boggling play-calling.

    The Notre Dame loss was bad enough, but anyone who watched Kiffin's dumbfounding decisions during the Sun Bowl has to be wondering if Kiffin really knows what he's doing with the headset.

    Thanks to that disaster, Kiffin should find his rear end firmly planted on the hot seat next season.

    Finally, we can't talk about how big of a loser Lane Kiffin was in this bowl season without mentioning the complete and utter lack of respect, humility and adult conduct showcased by some of his players during the run-up to the 2012 Sun Bowl. When an El Paso Times article begins with the headline “Another USC player apologizes,” you know things are bad.

    USC couldn't help but trip all over itself during its bowl trip. Rather than the refined powerhouse from Southern California, the Trojans looked like the Beverly Hillbillies heading into El Paso.

    At least Jed Clampett never missed dinner time.

Winner: Pac-12

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    Despite rumors to the contrary, the Pac-12 did not revert to a USC-plus-the-rest conference this season.

    With eight bowl teams, the Pac-12 posted a 4-4 record this season, but most importantly, those wins were by the programs that had taken advantage of USC's absence while under NCAA sanction. Stanford won the all-important Rose Bowl, while Oregon pummeled Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Arizona outlasted Nevada and Arizona State took it to Navy for the other two wins.

    The losses for the conference weren't all that bad this season. USC, not surprisingly, was done in by poor play-calling against Georgia Tech, and always impressive Boise State edged past Washington. Oregon State also lost by less than a touchdown to “mighty” Texas (while poor UCLA was blasted by Baylor).

    It may not be the dominating bowl performance we saw from a few other conferences, but the Pac-12 firmly established itself as a power conference with more than just one or two behemoths at the top.

    It's worth pointing out that putting the Pac-12 in the winners column doesn't include the officiating crew from the BCS National Championship Game.

Winner and Loser: SEC

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    Yes, it's another national championship for God's gift to humanity.

    But it wasn't all crystal footballs and rainbows for the conference to end all conferences. The SEC had its share of embarrassments this bowl season, including an epic loss by No. 3 Florida to No. 21 Louisville by a pretty comfortable margin in the 2013 Sugar Bowl.

    LSU was also edged out by Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, while fellow once-top-10er Mississippi State was knocked off by (gasp) a team from the Big Ten.

    South Carolina needed every last second to outlast Michigan, and Georgia was tied with Nebraska through three quarters.

    The SEC is still winning the big games, but the margins are getting closer and closer each and every season.

    The 2012-13 bowl season also means the entire nation will be forced to put up with the insufferable SEC cadre of fans who—shockingly—still haven't learned how to handle winning with any humility. As if Tennessee or Kentucky or Missouri or Arkansas or Auburn had anything to do with this season's success.

    Ginning up animosity is what SEC fans do best, and you can bet SEC hatred will be at an all-time high in 2013.

    After all was said and done, what did we learn? The SEC is no longer invincible, no matter what fans of the conference will tell you.

    Good? Without question.

    Convincingly unbeatable? Not anymore.

Winner and Loser: Notre Dame

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    Say what you will about the BCS National Championship Game and its result—Notre Dame clearly reestablished itself as a nationally relevant team this season.

    So what makes the Irish a winner based on bowl season?

    Despite numerous horrendous calls by a Pac-12 officiating crew in the first few minutes of the game, Notre Dame kept plugging away. Play after play, as Alabama gained yard after yard thanks to some timely runs, accurate passes and generous yellow flags, Brian Kelly's team never looked as if it had completely lost its bearings.

    In previous BCS appearances for the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame was completely overmatched and embarrassed by the final score. Even though the Irish didn't emerge victorious this season, no one is laughing anymore.