Stanford, obscure RBs among winners
From the opening avalanche in Albuquerque, N.M., to the madness of the Music City Bowl, from snow at the Hyundai Sun Bowl to the January validation of traditional nonpowers TCU and Stanford, it has been a typically turbulent bowl season so far.
Goodness knows what the final five games will deliver.
But with all the BCS bowl games but the big one wrapped up, this was an ideal spot to assess the winners and losers so far.
Winner: Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck. One of the most impactful coach-quarterback combinations in recent years. Stanford has not won a national title and Luck has not won a Heisman Trophy like Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow did, or gone to a title game like Bob Stoops-Sam Bradford and Mack Brown-Colt McCoy did. But consider where power programs like Florida, Oklahoma and Texas were before those guys arrived, then consider where Stanford was before Harbaugh and Luck teamed up.
Prior to Luck becoming the starting quarterback at Stanford, the Cardinal had endured seven straight losing seasons. With Luck, the Cardinal have gone 20-6 and scored their first BCS bowl victory in dominant fashion. He and Harbaugh have taken a perennial pretender to the top five. That's a bigger leap up than the Gators, Sooners and Longhorns made with their star quarterbacks.
And if both leave The Farm, it could be a big slide back down to ordinary status.
Loser: Suspense. There haven't been enough close games. Only 12 of 30 have been decided by a touchdown or less, while 13 games have been decided by 20 or more points. The trend was set early, when six of the first seven games were beatdowns, and it has continued.
Winner: The state of Florida. Its schools went 5-1, including the first-ever bowl victories for Central Florida (over Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl) and Florida International (over Toledo in the Little Caesar's Bowl). Florida State won its 10th game for the first time since 2003. South Florida made it a successful transition year under Skip Holtz by beating Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Florida sent Urban Meyer out on a winning note. Just don't ask about Miami.
Loser: Late-game poise. North Carolina and Tennessee committed unspeakable crimes against crunch-time football at the end of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Volunteers had a crucial extra point blocked, committed a boneheaded personal foul penalty and flunked last-minute pass coverage. But the Tar Heels still nearly let them off the hook with a preposterously dumb decision to run the ball with no timeouts and 13 seconds on the clock to further set up an already-set-up tying field goal. A penalty for having 76 men on the field actually saved the Heels and gave them a chance, which they converted into a double-overtime victory.
But that wasn't all. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert ruined an all-time great performance by throwing an all-time bad interception to turn the Insight Bowl from a Tigers victory into a bitter defeat. Wisconsin got squirrelly with its play calling and player rotation while trying to come back against TCU.
And the officials showed no late-game poise in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, stupidly flagging Kansas State's Adrian Hilburn for a borderline-at-best excessive celebration call that helped decide the game against Syracuse. And the head official who declared the Music City Bowl over -- only to change his mind -- probably sent several people to bed thinking Tennessee had won.
Winner: Obscure running backs. Stanford's Jeremy Stewart had rushed for 38 yards all season before dropping 99 yards and a 60-yard touchdown on Virginia Tech. Iowa's Marcus Coker had rushed for a total of 403 yards this season before blowing up for 219 on Missouri. Ronnie Hillman had enjoyed an excellent freshman season for San Diego State, but it happened well out of the mainstream. Nothing says "Hello, world" like a 244-yard, four-touchdown performance in a bowl game.
Loser: The Big Ten, pre-Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. New Year's Day merely marked the low point in league history -- but, hey, it's only been in business since 1896. The league was precisely doubled in the five-defeat debacle, scoring 102 points and surrendering 204.
But it wasn't just the losses. It was how they happened.
Michigan State was exposed as a fraud, losing 49-7. Michigan was in the final throes of a dysfunctional season under maybe-fired, maybe-not Rich Rodriguez, losing 52-14. Joe Paterno's disappointing Penn State squad couldn't beat a bad Florida team playing poorly. Wisconsin was outschemed, out-toughed and out-executed by non-AQ TCU. Only Northwestern acquitted itself nobly in a seven-point loss to Texas Tech.
Then there was the Dec. 30 dud delivered by ballyhooed 2011 newcomer Nebraska. The Cornhuskers somehow lost to a 6-6 Washington team they stomped in September.
When it's up to an Iowa team shaking off a disappointing season and serious off-field issues and Ron Zook to carry the Big Ten banner, it's a bad bowl season.
Winner: Unique Opportunity. That was the terminology the NCAA used in citing a previously existing policy that allowed Ohio State's rule-breaking Buckeyes to play in the Sugar Bowl, even though they face a heavy suspension in 2011. The profiteering Buckeyes made the most of their Unique Opportunity, making a succession of key plays in Ohio State's 31-26, hold-on-for-dear-life victory over Arkansas.
Quarterback Terrelle Pryor produced 336 total yards. Boom Herron ran for 87 yards and a touchdown. DeVier Posey caught three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. And defensive lineman Solomon Thomas salted away the game by intercepting a pass in the final minute.
Combine their big plays with the fact that Arkansas simply could not corral two critical loose balls -- a Pryor fumble early that somehow turned into an Ohio State touchdown, and a blocked punt late that somehow didn't turn into an Arkansas touchdown -- and it's clear the Buckeyes made the most of their Unique Opportunity.
Hold your nose and applaud the young lads.
Loser: SEC East. Division champion South Carolina lost star running back Marcus Lattimore early and was beaten by Florida State. Georgia was simply dreadful in failing to score a touchdown against Central Florida. Tennessee played a spirited but fatally flawed game against North Carolina. And even Florida's victory over Penn State underscored how badly the Gators' offense needs an overhaul.
Winner: Sun Belt. The Belt owns the Mid-American Conference, beating it in both the New Orleans Bowl and the Little Caesar's Bowl. While that might not sound like much, remember: The Sun Belt has never owned much of anything in its modest football existence.
Loser: Big East. West Virginia mailed in its Champs Sports Bowl performance and raised the specter of a very messy 2011 with Bill Stewart caretaking for a year before handing the program over to Dana Holgorsen. Connecticut confirmed everyone's worst fears in the Fiesta Bowl, then lost its coach. Pittsburgh is coachless and in disarray heading into the BBVA Compass Bowl. Thank goodness for Charlie Strong and Skip Holtz, who won their debut bowls at Louisville and South Florida, respectively.
Winner: Big East 2012. At least the league will bring in Rose Bowl champion TCU then.
Loser: Big 12 North. Its final divisional act was to live down to its stepchild reputation. Nebraska lost as a landslide favorite to a team it beat by five touchdowns in September. Missouri lost as a favorite to an Iowa team that was missing its all-time leading receiver and two leading rushers. Kansas State was ripped off by a capricious ref.
Winner: Mountain West Conference. Only team that lost was the one that always wins its bowl game, Utah.
Loser: Mountain West Conference. Of the league's five bowl teams in 2010, only two (San Diego State and Air Force) will still be there in 2012. Though the MWC does pick up WAC bowlers Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada.
Winner: The top tier of Conference USA. Central Florida and Tulsa both scored upsets as major underdogs.
Loser: Me. My bowl picks have been record-settingly bad.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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