David Wharton: NCAA’s punching bag gets shot at redemption

By David Wharton

Los Angeles Times

There isn’t much the Pac-12 Conference can say at this point.

Shadowed by last season’s bowl meltdown —a dismal 1-8 performance —coaches from Arizona to Washington State have adopted a stoic mantra.

“We don’t really pay much attention,” California coach Justin Wilcox said when asked about his conference’s sinking reputation.

Washington coach Chris Petersen called it “just a bunch of noise and frustration.”

As college football’s postseason kicks into high gear, this is clearly a make-or-break moment for the Pac-12, with six teams facing tough bowl games beginning Wednesday.

Things did not start well with Arizona Statelosing to FresnoState 31-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 15. The conference desperately needs some wins.

As Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew put it: “Quit pouting and just get back to work.”

His team serves as an example of how last season still haunts the Pac-12.

The College Football Playoff selection committee penalized the 10-2 Cougars harshly for a loss to rival Washington at the end of the regular season, dropping them five places to No. 13 and placing them in the Alamo Bowl instead of a New Year’s Six game.

By comparison, two of those more prestigious invitations went to 9-3 teams from the Southeastern Conference.

Though CFP voters have said —repeatedly —they do not take conference affiliations into account, Washington State athletic director Patrick Chun wasn’t buying it.

“We can easily infer that we’re ranked as a result of maybe the perception of the league,” he told ESPN.

It would be hard to blame the rest of the nation for looking askance at the Pac-12 after what happened last winter.

The conference’s top three teams —USC, Stanford and Washington —stumbled in the spotlight, with the champion Trojans looking particularly bad against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.

The 1-8 overall record ranked as the worst ever for a Power Five conference.

“Much was written and discussed about our bowl record last year,” commissioner Larry Scott said before this season. “From our perspective, a handful of season-ending games are not a key indicator of a conference’s overall strength and competitiveness.”

Maybe a series of unfavorable matchups was to blame. Maybe it was purely cyclical —the Big Ten went 1-6 in 2008 and soon bounced back.

Regardless, anything less than a strong showing over the next week will make the Pac-12’s problems look systemic rather than fleeting. Oregon players seem to appreciate that a lot is at stake against Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.

“They’ve taken the approach in understanding this is a really important game for them, for us, for the program, for the university, for the conference, right?” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said.

So what are the Pac-12’s chances?

The Ducks head into Monday as a slight favorite, one of five conference teams expected to win their matchups, at least on paper.

That includes Washington State against No. 24 Iowa State on Friday and No. 17 Utah against No. 22 Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl on Monday, though the Utes are playing without their top running back, lost to a season-ending injury, and perhaps without their starting quarterback.

“Our guys answered the bell all season long,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Stared adversity in the face, never flinched.”

Stanford will miss star running back Bryce Love, who decided to skip the postseason, but is favored to defeat Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl on Monday. Stanford might have a chip on its shoulder after getting bypassed for the Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium just down the road from campus.

“I don’t worry about those things,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “I’m excited to go wherever they tell us to go.”

California’s matchup against Texas Christian in the Cheez-It Bowl on Wednesday figures to be close, which means the only postseason game in which the Pac-12 faces an uphill battle is the most important one.

Though a winning record would go a long way toward erasing bad memories, the conference’s reputation might ultimately rest on the outcome of the Rose Bowl, where No. 9 Washington is an underdog against No. 6 Ohio State.

A few weeks ago, Petersen heard the national grumblings about his team’s 10-3 victory over Utah in a less-than-scintillating battle for the Pac-12 championship.

The criticism apparently irritated him. Last week, he talked about a 2011 SEC game in which No. 1 Louisiana State defeated No. 2 Alabama 9-6.

“It’s like, this is a tough conference and great defense and this is how it should be,” he said of widespread reaction to the game. “Not for us.”

The solution to the problem is simple enough. Just defeat the Buckeyes on New Year’s Day in Pasadena.

That kind of victory would quiet the critics, pulling the Pac-12 out of its doldrums. Petersen knows what his team needs to do, saying: “Just got to go play and do your thing.”