The ESPN conference bloggers published their debates today on each conference's main opponent in the bowl games. Because they have three bowl games against each other, the Pac-12 and the Big 12 were paired off.
After some quibbling, Ted Miller (defending the Pac-12) predicted only one Pac-12 team would win in their match-up with the Big 12, while David Ubben (for the Big 12) claimed the Big 12 would sweep every bowl game against the Pac-12.
The games they were referring to are the Oklahoma State-Stanford Fiesta Bowl showdown, the Baylor-Washington Alamo Bowl and the California-Texas Holiday Bowl.
In the debate, however, several facts were glossed over (I assume for brevity's sake) that demonstrate how each Pac-12 team is very evenly matched with its Big-12 foe. Each team has at least one facet of their play that can change the tide of the game.
California's Best Hope: There are actually two: defense and a balanced attack.
First, California has the second strongest defense (ranked 26th in the nation by USA Today) that Texas has faced.
Now, Texas beat BYU in its second week and BYU is ranked 17th defensively. However, Texas was playing at home and had its talented roster at full health for that game—and it won by one point.
Second, California has developed a potent air-ground assault in the last month. Half their rushing yards for the season have come in their last four games, with RB Isi Sofele the main pounder at 1,270 yards. QB Zach Maynard has thrown for 2,802 yards, and after a shaky start to the season has had completion rates of 58.8, 68.4, 69 and 73.1 percent in his last four games.
Consequently, the Bears have won three of their last four, and came within three points of forcing overtime on Stanford (ranked 25th defensively).
Texas's Best Hope: Their defense. At 14th in the nation, their defense will be the only thing to save them, because their offense is in shambles. If they can shift their defensive lines, confuse Zach Maynard, and contain Isi Sofele, then they have a very good chance of pushing Cal back enough to give their sputtering offense a chance.
Prediction: While Texas is currently favored by three points, I don't see this one anywhere near that close.
Texas has a stalwart defense, true, but their pass defense is hit-and-miss... as evidenced by their brushes with Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and so on. Cal's Maynard can throw to star receiver Keenan Allen or the solid Marvin Jones to open up the running game for Sofele.
On top of that, you have many Texas injuries (most of the injured players will be back for the bowl, supposedly, but how ready do you think they will be in their first game after recovery, after several weeks on the sidelines?), youth and lack of QB experience in a game away from home (but in California). All of these factors will tip this game in the Bears' favor.
California 34, Texas 24
Baylor's Best Hope: Robert Griffin III. Do I need to say more? The Heisman-winning scrambler is the current poster child for the Big 12's quarterback-centric league. Every game, he is a threat to run and throw for 400+ yards, while managing an offense that is fifth in passing (356.2 yards), 18th in rushing (215.1 yards) and sixth in points per game at 43.5.
In the face of strong defenses like TCU (32nd in the nation defensively) and Texas (14th), RG3 directed an offense that still netted 50 and 48 points, respectively. What does Washington's defensive coordinator Nick Holt really think he can do with his 94th-ranked defense?
Washington's Best Hope: Washington's offense. With Keith Price having a few weeks off to recover from an injury-laden season, and Chris Polk coming off an 11-touchdown, 1,341 ypc season, the Huskies are set to tear through the 114th-ranked defense in the country.
Prediction: RG3 vs. the 94th defense or Price/Polk vs. the 114th defense?
After a great start to the 2011 season, the Huskies regressed severely on both offense and defense, but they've had some time off and Steve Sarkisian has proven to be good at preparing for bowl games—at least the one we can pin on him.
With both offenses clicking, it may come down to a few defensive (gasp!) stops or who can out-pace who in points. Washington rarely fumbles the ball, but RG3 has a 72 percent completion rate and only six interceptions.
However, RG3 has proven to deliver against defensive teams, and Washington was forced into a shootout with the weakest defensive team it played, Arizona.
Washington 34, Baylor 49
Oklahoma State's Best Hope: That Weeden-Blackmon really is the most dominant QB-WR tandem in college football today. Weeden (4,328 yards, 34 TD, 12 INT) has a better completion rate than RG3 (72.6 percent), and part of that is because he's throwing to two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon (1,336 yards, 15 TD).
Weeden-Blackmon lead an offensive corps that has churned out an average of 49.3 points per game this season. Stanford had trouble with Oregon's lightning offense, where its main worry was rushing. Facing another speedy opponent that excels in the passing-receiving game and the rushing game (OK State's leading rusher Joseph Randle has 1,123 yards and 23 TDs) should be enough to give Cardinal fans pause.
Stanford's Best Hope: Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck, but not for the reasons most people talk about.
His numbers (3,170 yards, 35 TD, 9 INT) are fairly comparable to Weeden's despite lacking a strong receiving corps. That very lack of a deep-field threat has forced Stanford, which likes to play smash-mouth, pro-style football, to get creative with its run sets.
Luck passes to his three tight ends (most often senior Coby Fleener who has 10 TD this season) to move the ball in short, steady bursts across the field. He is exceptional at dissecting a team's defense versus the run, and it is because of him that the Cardinal is 26th and 22nd at passing and rushing respectively.
Prediction: Oklahoma State does not have a strong rush defense, so there is no reason to suspect they will stop Luck's penetrating throws. The Cowboys also don't have a strong pass defense, meaning WR Griff Whalen—while no Blackmon—will still see touches, especially after coming up big in games against Oregon and USC.
Actually, with a defense that is ranked 107th nationally, there is no reason to suspect that the Cowboys will stop Luck's Cardinals in any way.
Of course, even though Stanford boasts a Top-25 defense, there is no reason to suspect it can stop Oklahoma State's offense, which overpowered Texas's stronger defense. And the Cardinals were blown away by Oregon, which boasted a similar high-powered offense.
Oklahoma State has only faced Texas in terms of good defense, and they won that by two touchdowns. Stanford has a stronger secondary than Texas, one that faced down USC's Matt Barkley and his talented receiving corps, and it certainly has a better offense.
Oklahoma State 40, Stanford 48
Pac-12 vs. Big 12. Both conferences boast balanced offenses, are centered around the quarterback, and can rack up points in a hurry. Is one clearly better than the other?
The ESPN debate says "Yes," rather emphatically, with the Big 12 coming out ahead 2-1 or even 3-0 in bowl games against the Pac-12. The BCS computers agree with that assessment, but everyone knows the computers are flawed.
I believe the two conferences are as close in power as in style, and that the difference of each of these match-ups will be decided by two touchdowns or less. And each underdog Pac-12 team has a special reason for wanting to win.
Cal wants revenge against a Texas coach that lobbied against the Bears in 2004. The Cardinal wants to send Luck out in BCS Bowl fashion. And Washington will be hungry to pull off another upset.
Whoever comes out on top, be they Pac-12 or Big 12, I expect every game to be exciting.