A record nine Pac-12 teams participating in bowl season meant plenty of opportunity to reflect one final time on why the 2013 season played out as it did. Nine bowl games also offered a peek into the conference's 2014 outlook.
Beating Fire with Fire Is Key to Toppling Stanford
Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl was not so much a lesson on how to beat the Cardinal, but rather reinforced a reality made evident in their previous four losses during the last two seasons.
The Spartans came to Pasadena, Calif., boasting a physical defensive style on par with that which Stanford rode to a second consecutive conference championship.
When asked if Michigan State's was the best defense he faced, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney said, "Definitely," per a press-conference transcript from asapsports.com.
I knew they played team defense where they were all rallying to the ball. I knew they don't stray away from their job. But when you get out there and you see how cluttered everything is and how much problems they cause, we needed to make some adjustments, and we failed at that and didn't score.
Stanford's previous losses in the 2013 campaign came to Utah and USC, teams built on unflinching, physical defense. Don't be surprised if in their pursuit to catch the Cardinal, other Pac-12 teams try to restructure their defenses similarly, in much the same way that numerous Pac-12 offenses adopted hurry-up schemes after Oregon's success in the late 2000s.
The Oregon Run Game Is Sure to Keep Defenses Guessing (and Sweating)
Postseason play foreshadowed the look of the 2014 Oregon offense. And what opposing defensive coordinators saw in two different games has to have them reaching for the aspirin.
First, in the Alamo Bowl, a healthy quarterback Marcus Mariota went off for 133 yards rushing. With running backs Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall returning, the Ducks have plenty of speedy options.
Oregon also gets an injection of power to complement all that quickness.
Verbal recruiting commit Royce Freeman is a 6'0", 227-pound back with a punishing ball-carrying style unlike anything seen from recent Ducks backs. He scored three touchdowns in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
For Arizona's Griffey, It's Like Father, Like Son
Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker won Most Valuable Player of the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but freshman wide receiver Trey Griffey stole the show with a pair of touchdown receptions.
The son of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., Griffey’s first score came on a leaping grab reminiscent of his father’s home-run robbing catches in the outfield as a Seattle Mariner.
Breaking Old Habits a Must for Arizona State
Arizona State recorded the Pac-12's best regular-season conference record and won the South Division title in head coach Todd Graham's second season. However, their 37-23 blowout loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl was a significant departure from the mantra of accountability Graham emphasized in Arizona State's run to the Pac-12 South title.
"We didn't practice [well]," Graham said in his postgame press conference, per TheSunDevils.com. "We didn't come prepared to play and that's our job as coaches.
"It's not the players' fault, that's why they hire coaches, to get your guys ready to play," Graham added.
The Sun Devils have a long offeason to regroup, and more importantly, refocus. Arizona State committed a season-high seven penalties for 59 yards in its loss to Texas Tech.
The Sun Devils only accrued more penalty yards on Sept. 21 at Stanford. Not coincidentally, that too was a loss.
Bending but Not Breaking Is the Reality for Pac-12 Defenses
Washington was outgained 473 yards to 319 by BYU in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, yet the Huskies won by a comfortable 15-point margin, 31-16. Conversely, Washington outgained Stanford 489 to 279 but lost, 31-28, when the two met in October.
Those results aren't indicative of a trend. Surrendering more yards is counterintuitive to any defensive game plan, and it's no coincidence the Pac-12's top scoring defense—Stanford—was also the conference's second-best defense in yards yielded.
However, the proliferation of uptempo offenses around the conference has made giving up yards a virtual inevitability. What becomes of those yards is the more meaningful measurement of a defense's performance.
Takeaways = Wins
More turnovers forced typically means more opportunities for an offense, which means more points, and that translates to more wins. Pretty simple formula, right?
Just how much winning the turnover battle can mean to a team's record may not be more evident anywhere in the Pac-12 than at Oregon State.
The Beavers used two takeaways to beat Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl, 38-23. And while it certainly didn't hurt that the Beavers converted both Broncos turnovers into touchdowns, the highs and lows of Oregon State's up-and-down season corresponded with how it fared in turnover margin.
In seven wins, Oregon State was plus-11 in turnover margin. The Beavers were minus-eight in their six losses.
Amid its five-game losing streak to end the regular season, Oregon State was within single digits of two of its opponents: Oregon and Stanford. Not coincidentally, those were the two losses in which the Beavers did not lose the turnover battle.
Mike Leach Cares Not for Second-Guessing
It stands to reason Washington State head coach Mike Leach would be an unhappy camper following his team's blown lead and 48-45 loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl After the Cougars threw away a 15-point cushion in fewer than three minutes, an obviously frustrated Leach let reporters know in his postgame press conference just how unhappy he was.
UCLA Offense Developing into a Force
The top three defenses UCLA faced in 2013 were Stanford, USC and Virginia Tech, against which the Bruins scored 10, 35 and 42 points.
A difference between the first result and latter two is that UCLA saw USC and Virginia Tech at season's end, after the Bruins offense found its confidence behind quarterback Brett Hundley.
"To be able to come in against a [Virginia Tech] defense that was ranked eighth in scoring defense, that's a credit to these guys and [offensive coordinator] Noel Mazzone," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said in his postgame press conference, per UCLABruins.com.
With much of the offensive line remaining intact, a deep receiving corps and an influx of more young talent to Westwood, Calif., UCLA is on course to have an offense that can compete with the nation's best defenses on a weekly basis.
Oh, and don't forget Hundley. His return for a third season captaining the UCLA offense is the foundation for what should be an explosive bunch in 2014, as tweeted by ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Leaving Las Vegas (and USC)
For several USC Trojans, their 45-20 rout of Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl was their final time donning cardinal and gold. Defensive lineman George Uko, offensive lineman Marcus Martin and safety Dion Bailey all declared their intent to forgo their remaining NCAA eligibility to pursue the NFL draft.
Wide receiver Marqise Lee is also headed to the NFL, which means new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian will not be seeing any of this next season:
Sarkisian inherits a roster already thinned by NCAA sanctions, but the mass departures leave USC even thinner heading into 2014. He'll have quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, all of whom made big plays in the Las Vegas Bowl, as well as All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
Still, the key lesson to take from USC's bowl appearance is the Trojans will look quite a bit different the next time they take the field—for better or worse.
The Best Is Still Ahead for the Pac-12
Rather than 2013 marking the culmination of the Pac-12's ascent, the conference's record season is a milestone building toward more. A 6-3 final bowl record with countless impressive performances on both sides of the ball gives the Pac-12 more collective positive momentum heading into the offseason than it's ever had.
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