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Jun 23, 2023

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For one last time, who will go bowling and where?

Picking bowls is more of a crapshoot every year. As bowl tie-ins get looser and the order of preference becomes more driven by marketability than record, it’s more guesswork than science. Nonetheless, it’s a fun sort of guesswork, so let’s take a look at one way the bowl match-ups might shake out.

I’m picking USC to win the conference at 8-1 and make the CFP as the fourth seed to play top-seeded Georgia. While I think there are real issues with USC’s defense, I think the offensive fireworks will be enough to keep them in the mix to the end of the year. Zachariah Branch is a tie-breaker for me. He’s blazingly fast, yet under control. He’s the type of player who can individually make up for shortcomings elsewhere on the roster. He can win them a game or two by himself, and if he does that at the right time, it can break the Pac-12’s CFP dry spell.

Second in the conference at 7-2 earns the Huskies a trip back to the NY6. The Dawgs and Nittany Lions previously matched up in Glendale in 2017, where Saquon Barkley proved too much for the Jake Browning-Miles Gaskin duo. Penn State has the best offensive lineman in the country (Olumuyiwa Fashanu), one of the best DBs (Kalen King), and one of the best pass rushers (Chop Robinson). Put that together with a dynamic backfield and the Fiesta Bowl might be their floor. I have both Ohio State and Michigan in the CFP, so the top-heavy Big 10 is well-represented in the upper echelons.

The Utes end their two-year reign atop the Pac-12, but still finish in a very strong position at third. They match up with the #2 team in the Big 12. Ironically, Utah will play in the Big 12 next year, but not Oklahoma. The Sooners struggled in the first year under Brent Venables, but he’s simply too good of a defensive coach for the defense to underperform again this year.

The Las Vegas Bowl is probably a disappointment for Duck fans who have visions of the NY6 or CFP at this point in the year. I don’t blame them; the margin between the top four teams is razor-thin. I slot them in fourth in that group because I give Kenny Dillingham a lot of credit for the Bo Nix breakout in 2022 and Dillingham’s departure for Arizona State leaves a big question mark in an area that was a great strength a season ago. South Carolina doesn’t have the historical prestige of some of their SEC rivals, but Shane Beamer has them on an upward trajectory and this would be a match-up that elevates the bowl’s reputation.

The Beavers are hoping to take a big step forward this year, but with the depth and talent at the top of the conference, this would not be a bad place to end up. Duke has improved somewhat shockingly under Chris Elko for a program that has been a doormat much more than it has been competitive. I have Oregon State going 6-3 in conference, which is a strong accomplishment. I don’t have them going any higher because I remain skeptical that DJU can do the little things effectively enough to elevate the offense.

It’s hard to predict UCLA’s season when we don’t even know who will take the most snaps at QB. Ethan Garbers was named the week 1 starter, but both Collin Schlee and Dante Moore will play. There’s some natural drop-off with DTR and Zach Charbonnet in the NFL, but Chip Kelly still has tons of speed and explosiveness at the skill positions. They will still be dangerous. Louisville lost HC Scott Satterfield to Cincinnati and hired Jeff Brohm from Purdue; two moves that induce the most indifferent of shrugs.

A 4-5 record in the conference is an unspectacular way for the Cougs to leave this version of the Pac-12, but a bowl bid is never a bad season in Pullman. As for the opponent, the bid technically goes to the #2 team in the Mountain West. I’m not overwhelmed by the options this year. Jake Haener and Kirby Moore are gone from Fresno State. Air Force replaces several important skill position players. San Diego State had an uninspired Week 0 win over Ohio, but I trust the defense and it should keep them close to the top of the conference.

Jason Terry! Wilt Chamberlain! Sean Elliott! Nick Collison! It’s Arizona and Kansas, in football. I like the progress for the Jedd Fisch Arizona program, but I might be stretching a bit to get them to bowl eligibility. A couple of key games on the schedule will be road contests against Washington State and Mississippi State. If the Cats can get either of those, I like their chances to achieve bowl eligibility.