Stanford QB Andrew Luck
With the BCS era officially coming to an end, it's time to reflect on the many highs and lows experienced by the Pac-10/12 over the past 15 years.
From USC's dynasty to the rise of Oregon under Chip Kelly, no other conference has seen such a mix of styles, players and formulas in the time of the BCS. You saw quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck; running backs Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Maurice Jones-Drew and LaMichael James; and a host of other top offensive players as part of a list much too long to include here.
Defense may have taken a backseat in recent years, but let's not forget the elite linebacking corps the Trojans boasted in the 2000s or the dominant defensive lines of the Stanford Cardinal in recent years. Again, listing all the key contributors would be a lengthy exercise, but rest assured that there was no shortage of talent on defense in this league.
So how can you take the entire BCS era and whittle it down into the very best and worst moments for the conference? Well, we'll start by focusing on moments that brought a spotlight on the West Coast, which means BCS games are at an advantage to begin with. The opposite is true as well, as any game, player or controversy bringing shame to the conference goes to the top of the list of worst moments.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the best and worst moments from the Pac-10/12 during the BCS era, and feel free to share some of your own favorite memories in the comments!
All stats and information via ESPN.
Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas returns the opening kickoff in the Ducks' Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State.
Winning BCS games was the ultimate goal of every program around the country over the past 15 years, and conference pride often came into play at the dawn of each new year.
One of the best moments for the conference came in January 2013, when both Oregon and Stanford found themselves in a BCS game. For the Cardinal, it was the sacred ground of Pasadena and the Rose Bowl in a powerhouse matchup with Wisconsin. For Oregon, it was a Fiesta Bowl tilt with Kansas State and Heisman finalist Colin Klein.
On New Year's Day, the Cardinal took the field and proceeded to physically dominate the Badgers, although the scoreboard never reflected it. Still, after shutting out the Badgers in the second half, it was David Shaw's team being donned with roses, notching an important win for the Pac-12.
Several days later, the Ducks took the field, and on the very first play, running back De'Anthony Thomas took the kickoff back to the house, showcasing the speed the Ducks have been known for in recent years. It wasn't the prettiest game, but Oregon stayed in control throughout and ended up winning 35-17.
For just the second time in the BCS era, the conference had two BCS bowl winners, and when you consider that's out of a possible five games, it's pretty impressive. What it proved was that the Pac-12 wasn't far behind the SEC in terms of national superiority, and it paved the way for a conference that continued to strengthen its depth this past season.
Oregon QB Dennis Dixon was hurt, and the Ducks never fully recovered.
2007 was a cursed year for the sport of college football, as no team seemed to be able to hang on to the precious No. 2 ranking, which guarantees a spot in the BCS title game at the end of the year.
In September, Oregon and Cal played an incredible game that went down to the wire before Oregon receiver Cameron Colvin fumbled the ball through the end zone for a touchback, which essentially ended the game and gave the Bears the win. When Jeff Tedford's team rose up to No. 2, however, it was unable to capitalize on its lofty position.
Facing the Beavers, Cal was behind by three points and driving with just seconds left in the game. As quarterback Kevin Riley dropped back to pass, he didn't find anybody to throw to and instead of just chucking the ball away, he scrambled and was tackled in the middle of the field. The field-goal unit scrambled onto the field, but time ran out and the Beavers escaped with a 31-28 victory.
Later that season, it was Oregon that had climbed back up into the enviable position of being ranked No. 2, yet the curse struck again. In a Thursday-night game at Arizona, quarterback Dennis Dixon dropped back to pass and tried to juke a defender. Instead of sidestepping the pass-rusher, he tore his ACL and crumpled to the ground. The Ducks were then blown out and lost their final two games of the regular season as well.
In a year that saw USC start out high as well as both Cal and Oregon climb near the top of the BCS standings, the Pac-10 should have been able to make some national noise. But it failed to do so, and several teams were left wondering "what if?"
USC QB Matt Leinart
It was the first BCS championship victory by a team from the Pac-10, and it was also one of the most dominant displays of football anyone had ever seen.
In January 2005, the USC Trojans were pitted against an Oklahoma Sooners team led by former Heisman Trophy winner Jason White at quarterback. But Pete Carroll's squad boasted the most recent Heisman winner in quarterback Matt Leinart, and boy did he validate himself.
After Oklahoma jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, USC outscored Bob Stoops' team 38-3 the rest of the way before halftime. After the break, the Trojans paraded through the third and fourth quarters, eventually winning 55-19.
The game was never really in doubt, and Leinart finished with 332 yards passing and five touchdowns. Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett each had over 100 yards receiving, and the defense forced White into tossing three interceptions.
Sure, it was a huge moment for USC, which had officially announced its return to the college football mountaintop. But it was also a great moment for the league, as a number of teams played USC a heck of a lot closer than Oklahoma did.
UCLA fans may have struggled with trying to enjoy the Trojans' victory parade, but it was a big win for a historic program and a historic conference.
Reggie Bush was marvelous at USC.
It was one of the dark moments of the BCS era for all of college football, not just the USC Trojans. But it was Southern Cal that took the brunt of the NCAA's wrath after the governing body ruled that former running back Reggie Bush had received "improper benefits" as a student athlete, per The New York Times' Lynn Zinser.
It's impossible to delve into all the details of the case without winding up 75 pages deep into the NCAA rulebook and staring at a clock that reads 3:30 a.m. What we do know is that the penalties helped to end one of the most dominant runs by a team in college football history.
USC won the Rose Bowl in 2004 and national championship in 2005, lost the latter a year later and then proceeded to win three straight Rose Bowls. Bush was the most electrifying player the game had ever seen, and his highlights will be shown until the end of time.
But the sanctions put a damper on all of those accomplishments, and while fans will always remember how good those USC teams were, their legacies are now tarnished in several sections of the official record books.
Even with the emergence of Oregon and Stanford following Troy's reign, the fact that everything ended because of NCAA violations was a sore spot for the conference in the BCS era.
Oregon State RB Ken Simonton
Oregon and Stanford both winning their BCS games in 2013 was impressive, but they weren't the first tandem to do so.
That honor belongs to Washington and Oregon State, who both claimed victories in BCS bowls following the 2000 season.
Despite losing to the Oregon Ducks, Washington emerged ahead of both the Ducks and Beavers in the three-way tie after the season ended. As a result, the Huskies traveled to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, where they scored a comfortable 34-24 victory over Purdue. It was validation for a brutal conference schedule that saw challenges nearly every week.
The Beavers, despite missing out on the Rose Bowl, were able to beat the Ducks in the Civil War and reach the Fiesta Bowl, where they laid an absolute beatdown on Notre Dame. Dennis Erickson's team, led by quarterback Jonathan Smith, running back Ken Simonton and wide receiver Chad Johnson (yes, that Chad Johnson), smoked the Fighting Irish 41-9.
Washington winning the Rose Bowl was impressive enough for the Pac-10, but Oregon State winning in dominant fashion was further proof that the conference was as tough as they come at the turn of the century. The pair of major bowl wins is definitely up there with the fondest memories of the BCS era for the league.
Auburn QB Cam Newton
The SEC had brought home the crystal ball four years in a row, and in January 2011, it was up to the Oregon Ducks to put an end to the streak. Chip Kelly's team was undefeated and going up against Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers.
Going into the game, the talk was all about the high-powered offenses, and the Ducks, led by LaMichael James on the ground, were a blur throughout much of the season. Newton, meanwhile, was a tank in the backfield for Gene Chizik's squad, rifling passes around the gridiron while also picking up tough yards on the ground.
It seemed to be a pretty fair fight, and it actually played out that way—except it wasn't the offenses making noise. Instead, both defenses brought their A-game, and after Oregon tied things up at 19 with just a couple minutes left, the two seemed destined for overtime.
Instead, Auburn running back Michael Dyer made the play of his life. The freshman tailback took a handoff and ran up the field for a first down before being tackled by safety Eddie Pleasant—except he wasn't quite down, and after the players all stopped, Dyer continued to run before eventually getting chased down from behind. The run, however, put the Tigers in position to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.
It was disappointing for the conference in the sense that the Oregon Ducks had a chance to finally end the reign of the evil empire that was the SEC. It may have shifted the weight of conference power to the West, and it would have given the Pac-10 bragging rights.
But Kelly's offense couldn't get things going when it mattered the most, and the SEC's impressive streak of titles continued.
QB Aaron Rodgers excelled at Cal.
In one of the most memorable games of the BCS era, Cal bested top-ranked USC by a score of 34-31, and it took the Bears three overtime periods to do so.
Part of what makes this particular game so special is the number of stars it had on the field. For Cal, start with future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
For USC, it was Leinart at quarterback, Mike Williams at receiver and Lofa Tatupu at linebacker.
After Cal took a 21-7 lead into halftime, USC came out and and tied things up in the third quarter. A pair of field goals by each team knotted things up at 24 before the clock hit zero. After both the Trojans and Bears managed to score a touchdown, the game went into the third overtime period, where a 38-yard Tyler Fredrickson field goal provided the winning margin.
It wasn't a bowl game, and the loss ultimately made the difference in USC not reaching the national championship. But it was an incredible game played by two great teams overflowing with future NFL talent. It will always be remembered as one of the best games of the BCS era, and for that, it belongs on the list of the conference's best moments.
For some, the picture you see here is one of the funniest images involving inept refereeing. For the Pac-10, it was a total embarrassment on a national level. For the Ducks, it was pure luck, and for Oklahoma, it was maddening.
The Sooners traveled to Eugene in September 2006 to take on the Ducks in a game that matched ranked teams. The Ducks scored late in the game to crawl within six and then recovered the subsequent onside kick. Well, except for the "recover" part. As you can plainly see, an Oklahoma player has the ball while several refs are searching for the ball at the bottom of the pile.
Because it looked initially like a Duck player may have recovered, the ball was ultimately given to Oregon, and the play stood, somehow, even after a review. Of course, the Ducks still had to score a touchdown and then block the Sooners' game-winning field-goal try, but the game also would have been over right then and there had the refs made the correct call.
The events of this past September may not equal the zaniness of that sunny day at Autzen, but don't tell that to Wisconsin fans. As time wound down on the clock, Wisconsin took a knee. But Arizona State jumped on the ball as if it were a fumble, and it took a while for things to get reset. The clock slowly kept ticking away, and the refs failed to spot the ball before time ran out.
The Badgers were hoping to spike the ball and attempt what would have been a game-winning field goal, but instead, the game ended. It was the second black mark on a conference whose officials have been, well, questionable at times throughout the BCS era. The two incidents were some of the worst moments in league history.
Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh
In the post-USC era of the Pac-10, the conference was searching for teams that could step up and carry the mantle into the future.
With Oregon headed to the national championship, it appeared the Ducks had answered the call. Fortunately, at least for the sake of depth, so too did Stanford.
The Cardinal, having lost only to the Ducks in 2010, reached the Orange Bowl and squared off with Virginia Tech. It was the first chance for the nation to get a look at Andrew Luck and see what he could do on a grand stage. He didn't disappoint.
Luck completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns, and his top target, tight end Coby Fleener, caught six passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns. It was a dominant performance from start to finish on both sides of the ball, and it let the nation know that more than one team could carry the conference.
The BCS berth was Stanford's first in a string of four straight. That the win came so easily only served to justify the talk that the top of the Pac-10 was as good as the top of any conference that season.
Texas QB Vince Young
The national championship between USC and Texas could probably make the "best" portion of this list for sheer excitement throughout the game capped off by an incredible finish. It's certainly on the short list of best college football games of all time.
But despite how much fun this thing was to watch, it will go down as one of the worst moments for the conference in the BCS era. For one, USC had gone undefeated throughout the season. The Trojans handily beat the Oregon Ducks, who finished second in the conference.
Reggie Bush was winning the Heisman Trophy, Matt Leinart was playing the quarterback position to perfection, and the defense, though not as good as the ones that followed, was still pretty mean.
Then Vince Young happened.
Still, even with the dual-threat dynamo threatening to spoil the Trojans' shot at a second straight title, USC had a 4th-and-2 late in the fourth quarter near midfield that, if converted, would have won the game.
But LenDale White was stopped short, and Young drove the Longhorns down the field for a touchdown with just seconds remaining to secure the victory. It was a roller-coaster ride from start to finish, and yet, had it not been for a boneheaded lateral by Bush, Pete Carroll's team may have won.
Instead, the crystal football went to the Big-12, and the Pac-12 Conference hasn't claimed a national championship since.