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A look back at the Pac-10 football season

Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game marked the end of the 2010-11 college football season, which turned out to be very eventful for the Pac-10. For one thing, it was during this season that the expansion to the Pac-12 was finalized for next year, so it marked the final season of the Pac-10 as we know it.

On the field, several other storylines unfolded throughout the season, starting off with the NCAA’s crackdown on USC. The Trojans lost scholarships and could not participate in a bowl game, so many college football fans wrote off the Pac-10 as a legitimate national title contender. Preseason outlooks were so varied that most pundits expected the Pac-10 to be filled with parity in 2010-11, leading teams to beat up on each other enough during the conference season to take away any shot for the Pac-10 to figure in the national scene.

By all accounts, preseason expectations were wrong. While the bottom half of the Pac-10 did cannibalize itself, the top certainly had an impact on the national scene. Oregon was coming off a Rose Bowl berth and appeared to be a frontrunner, but the loss of Jeremiah Masoli (a preseason Heisman Trophy contender) increased doubts among media members and fans alike. Almost no one predicted a dominant sweep of the Pac-10 and an unbeaten regular season, but that’s just what the Ducks pulled off on their way to the BCS National Championship Game.

Possibly more surprising was the ascension of Stanford into the country’s elite. The Cardinal did not even crack either major preseason top 25 poll, and question marks cluttered both sides of the ball. The emergence of Stanford’s running game without departed star Toby Gerhart and the remarkable improvement of Vic Fangio’s defense surprised the college football world as the Cardinal finished one half away from a perfect season.

While Oregon and Stanford enhanced the Pac-10’s reputation with arguably the best season in each program’s history, several other teams failed to live up to preseason expectations.

Chief among them was Oregon State, who began the year ranked third in the Pac-10 preseason poll and 24th in the AP Poll, but ended the year with its worst record since 1997. Early losses against TCU and Boise State (who finished a combined 25-1) did not raise too much alarm, but going 1-4 down the stretch, including losses to UCLA and Washington State (who combined for only three Pac-10 victories–UCLA over Oregon State, Washington State over Oregon State and UCLA over Washington State), was the reason why the Beavers missed a bowl game for the first time since 2005. The loss of receiver James Rodgers to a season-ending injury in early October certainly did not help matters, but much more was expected of a team that came within one win of a Rose Bowl berth in each of the previous two years.

Oregon State was one of three Pac-10 teams to miss out on a bowl game by just one win. Arizona State finished 6-6 but had two wins over FCS foes and therefore did not qualify for a bowl. The Sun Devils came oh so close to bowl eligibility, losing four games by four points or fewer. Blocked extra points were the difference in one-point road losses to both Wisconsin and USC, but Arizona State ended on a strong note by blocking two extra points themselves in a thrilling double-overtime win over rival Arizona to cap the season.

California also sniffed bowl eligibility before eventually falling just short. The Golden Bears were among the most inconsistent teams in the country all season. In their first eight games, the Bears went 4-0 at home with an average margin of victory of 38.75 points per game and 0-4 on the road with an average margin of defeat of 21 points per game. Cal finally broke the trend with a win at Washington State to get to 5-4 overall, but the new trend could not be stopped either, as Cal lost its final three games at home.

USC was a bit of an enigma coming into the season, filled with talent but crippled by NCAA sanctions. The Trojans continued to be an enigma, following up a 4-0 start with a disappointing effort at home against Washington. USC rebounded with a near-win at Stanford and a blowout victory over Cal. Following a respectable loss to Oregon, the Trojans swept the Arizona schools before laying a massive egg against Oregon State. A head-scratching home loss to Notre Dame and a win over rival UCLA finished off an up-and-down 8-5 season.

Only two teams–UCLA and Washington State–did not approach bowl eligibility, although each had its own highlights: the Bruins won convincingly at Texas and the Cougars broke their Pac-10 losing streak with a road win over Oregon State.

Heading into bowl season, the Pac-10 only managed four bowl berths (not including USC, which had enough wins but was ineligible). Oregon and Stanford secured spots in BCS bowl games due to rankings of No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in the final BCS standings. Arizona clinched bowl eligibility early with a 7-1 start but stumbled down the stretch, losing its last four regular-season games. Washington secured the final spot in exactly the opposite way, limping out to a 3-6 start before winning its last three regular-season games to sneak into a bowl.

The first Pac-10 team to participate in its bowl was Arizona, which took on Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats came in as underdogs due to their season-ending four-game losing streak and Oklahoma State’s 10-2 record. Both teams entered with explosive passing games, and many predicted a back-and-forth duel between quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Nick Foles. Neither quarterback responded with a strong performance. Weeden threw for only 240 yards, his second-lowest total of the season, while Foles threw three interceptions after throwing no more than one in his last 16 games. The ground attacks were even more pitiful, as neither team reached 100 yards rushing. With such poor offensive play, the game came down to defense, and the Cowboy defense made far more plays. Oklahoma State forced four turnovers while Arizona forced none, and this made the difference in a 36-10 rout by the Cowboys.

Next up was Washington, who many expected to fare even worse than Arizona, and for good reason. The Huskies were a two-touchdown underdog to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl after getting blown out by the Cornhuskers in Seattle earlier in the year. The questions heading into the game were whether anything had changed since Nebraska won 56-21 in September and whether Nebraska would be motivated for the rematch. Both these questions were answered early on, as Washington took control immediately and never looked back. Quarterback Jake Locker hardly improved from his 4-for-20 performance in September, completing only five of his 16 passes for 56 yards. The keys for the Huskies were the running game and defense, which both performed as well as they had all season. Running back Chris Polk and Locker combined for 260 yards on 47 carries, while Nebraska’s potent rushing attack was held to 91 yards on 41 carries. The Cornhuskers looked flat all game, and the Huskies capitalized with a 19-7 win.

Stanford took the field next in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech. The Hokies were making their third Orange Bowl appearance in four years, while the Cardinal was making its debut in the game. The matchup was touted as one of the better games of the bowl season, as both teams came into the game on a roll. Virginia Tech had lost its first two games of the season to Boise State and James Madison, but responded with 11 straight wins and an ACC title. Stanford had already set a school record with 11 wins and was looking to win a bowl game for the first time since 1996. The highly anticipated quarterback battle between redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck and Tyrod Taylor started in favor of Taylor, who made all the highlight reels with a remarkably athletic touchdown throw to running back David Wilson to give the Hokies their first lead at 9-7. It proved to be their only lead of the game, though, as Stanford came out inspired in the second half, putting the game away on both sides of the ball. Luck was particularly impressive, completing nine of his 10 second-half passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns, all to junior tight end Coby Fleener. The Cardinal defense was stifling, holding Virginia Tech scoreless in the half as Stanford cruised to the 40-12 win.

The final bowl game featuring a Pac-10 team was also the biggest one of all–the BCS National Championship Game between Oregon and Auburn. Both teams came in with undefeated records, Heisman Trophy finalists, explosive offenses and questionable defenses. All the buzz focused on an offensive thriller, but the title game proved to be anything but. While neither team could pull ahead by more than one score, neither offense enjoyed anything close to the success it had all season. Both quarterbacks were sloppy, as Darron Thomas and Heisman winner Cam Newton committed two turnovers apiece.

Thomas bounced back from some questionable decisions on zone reads to pass for a career-high 363 yards. The Ducks needed this passing attack, though, because their normally electric rushing game was shut down by Auburn’s defense, tallying only 75 yards. Running back LaMichael James, who was a Heisman finalist and the nation’s leading rusher, managed only 49 rushing yards and was limited due to injury.

Meanwhile, Auburn had bursts of offense followed by long stretches of stagnation. The Tigers were very successful on the ground, racking up 254 yards, while Newton passed for 265. Despite all this yardage, Auburn’s lead was only 19-11 with a few minutes to play. While trying to run out the clock, Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews knocked the ball out of Newton’s hand from behind, and cornerback Cliff Harris fell on the ball. The Duck offense, which had not scored for over 35 game minutes, responded with a crucial touchdown drive to bring the score to 19-17. On the two-point conversion attempt, Thomas rolled in the pocket and found receiver Jeff Maehl open in the back of the end zone to tie the game with 2:33 to play.

The Tigers got the ball back on their own 25-yard line looking for a final drive to win the game. After a 15-yard pass brought Auburn near midfield, the Tigers benefited from one of the craziest plays in title-game history. Running back Michael Dyer took the handoff and ran for a routine gain of about five yards before he was wrestled down by defensive back Eddie Pleasant. As Dyer got up and walked toward the sideline, his coaches screamed at him to keep running because his knee had never touched the ground. Both teams had completely stopped, but the refs did not blow the whistle, so Dyer continued running all the way to Oregon’s 23-yard line. The play was upheld by replay, and the damage was done. Following another Dyer run that nearly got in the end zone, Auburn set up for the game-winning chip-shot field goal, which kicker Wes Byrum knocked straight through to give the Tigers the 22-19 win and their first national championship since 1957.

In total, Pac-10 teams went 2-2 in bowl games, which is fairly successful considering three of the four teams were underdogs. Arizona played poorly, but this was expected after a terrible end to the season. Washington surprised everyone by dominating Nebraska in arguably the biggest shocker of the entire bowl season. Stanford took an apparent nail-biter and made it into a rout that validated its season. Oregon lost a very tight national title game that could very well have gone to overtime if not for an absolute fluke of a play. In the end, the Pac-10 joins the SEC, MAC and WAC with .500 bowl records, but the 2010-11 season will mostly be remembered for the Pac-10 having only four teams go bowling, and for the performances of Stanford and Oregon in BCS games.