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Matt Calkins: Pac-12 playing for its football reputation during bowl season

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 18, 2018, 7:28 p.m.

By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Nearly four months later, it seems almost certain: The Washington Huskies’ College Football Playoff chances ended the second they lost to Auburn.

Based on the way the CFP committee views the Pac-12, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion.

Even if Washington had won out, it wouldn’t have edged a one-loss Oklahoma squad for fourth seed, right? Not when the committee excluded a two-loss Washington State team from the New Year’s Six while including four-loss Texas. Not when two three-loss SEC teams made it over the Cougs as well.

Part of this is based on how Pac-12 teams fared during nonconference play this season (badly). But it also has to do with how teams from the conference fared in bowl games last season (worse). In fact, the Pac-12’s 1-8 showing marked the worst postseason performance in a Power 5 conference’s history.

So with bowl season under way, it’s obligatory that the Pac-12 show out this time. Or at the very least, show up.

Unfortunately, no signs of such a turnaround appeared Saturday afternoon. Arizona State, which was one win shy of going to the conference title game, lost to Fresno State 31-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Sure, the Bulldogs came into the game ranked 21st in the country. But this was still a loss to a Group of Five school that outgained the Sun Devils by 143 yards.

At what point does this go from frustrating to downright embarrassing? Or are we past embarrassing and headed toward maddening?

It was just a few years ago that the Pac-12’s record-setting TV deal gave the impression it could compete with any conference in the land. Now it’s becoming a pushover on the field and a punch line off it.

The most blatant victim of that perception this year was Washington State. No, you can’t blame Texas for picking up a fourth loss in the Big-12 title game, but given how the Longhorns also had a nonconference loss to Maryland, awarding them a New Year’s Six bowl over the 10-2 Cougs was a not-so-subtle slight.

The committee essentially got on a speakerphone and told the Pac-12 to start impressing them. There’s not much recent history to show that it will.

Washington and Washington State have lost their past two bowl games (although one of the Huskies’ losses came to No. 1 Alabama in the CFP). The Cougs’ most recent bowl loss came via a 42-17 bludgeoning by Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl.

That was one of three three-score losses Pac-12 teams suffered last bowl season. Will they resuscitate their reputation this time around?

A four-part series that ran in the Oregonian last month further dampened the conference’s dwindling image. It noted a lack of economic parity, controversy in the replay booth, and, of course, shrinking (literally) talent.

“The size disparity was ridiculous,” former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel told the Oregonian. “We, as a conference, have to get bigger. We play in this league that is small, skilled and make all kinds of plays, but we don’t look the part physically. We don’t have the ability to recruit and have the bells and whistles because the money isn’t coming in as it should.”

That’s an issue for Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to figure out. In the mean time, the six teams with bowl games to play can do their part to revive their conference’s image. There’s Cal vs. Texas Christian, Michigan State vs. Oregon, Stanford vs. Pittsburgh, Utah vs. Northwestern, Washington State vs. Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl and Washington vs. Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

The good news? Washington is the only underdog of the six. The bad news? Washington is the only underdog of the six.

These games could be an opportunity for the Pac-12 to build its resume for next year. It’s also an opportunity to cement its ineptitude into future voters’ minds.

The teams in conference have been known to eat their own during the regular season. But this postseason, they’re all playing for each other.

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