Three Jack City

As a college football fan, there are few times as chock-full of wonder and merriment as the holiday bowl season. However, as a Pac-10 fan, there is also the annual embitterment of being snubbed by a system that takes not only BCS berths from the conference's clutches, but also pits the league's best against other conferences' also rans.

Oregon in 2001.  At the memory of it, Mr. Embittered Pac-10 Fan blows a disrespectful quack through a pair of plastic Duck lips.  USC in 2003.  Defiantly, he raises two fingers on his right hand and waves them robotically to a Ben Hur ditty.  Like Mr. Embittered, a lot of us can recite chapter and verse the many ways that the Pac-10 has been screwed out of BCS title games.  What we're not as always familiar with is the trickle down to the rest of the bowl cosmos.

Bowl games are supposed to be rewards.  They're supposed to serve as yardsticks for national rankings and fuel for conference bragging sessions.  The teams should be evenly matched, and in games involving two major conferences, the records should be pretty similar.  Sure, one team might have an extra "L," maybe two if they played a particularly brutal schedule or dug themselves out of an early hole and finished strong.  But two's the limit, right?  Surely, there's no way the Sansabelted stewards of our bowl system would ever, could ever, sandbag a major conference team with an opponent that had three more losses?  Welcome to the world of the Pac-10 bowl team.  Welcome to Three Jack City.

Year in, year out, Detmer brother or no Detmer brother, San Diego's Holiday Bowl has proven one of the most exciting games on the bowl schedule, typically delivering offense galore and more last-minute twists than Hollywood.  Lately, though, Pacific Life's favorite year-end marketing vehicle has been about as appealing as the smoke from those south of the border maquiladoras.  Last year, after Texas' Mack Brown went Sally Field on national TV, the Sansabelts gifted the Longhorns with a Rose Bowl match-up against Michigan and bumped 10-1 Cal to a nothing-to-play-for Holiday Bowl tilt against 8-4 Texas Tech.  And this year, showing a remarkable inability to learn from history, they've given us a Holiday Bowl that pits BCS-snubs du jour Oregon against an Oklahoma Sooner squad that brings four losses to the table.  Three-jacked, again.

A survey of bowl games beginning in 2000 (yes, loyal reader, there are Websites that allow you to research all the bowl results going back several seasons, and yes, the data gathering process is typically enlivened by "click here to date me" ads that are almost as titillating as a crawling line of text hinting that a certain all-section monsterback from Tarzana is leaning towards paying a visit to your alma mater) reveals that there have been exactly five bowl games (excepting, of course, fraudulent BCS tilts with conference champion guarantees; see last year's Pitt-Utah stinker) where a major conference school was three-jacked.  And in four of these fiascos (including this month's Oregon game), the aggrieved party was a Pac-10 school.

Four out of five.  A cool 80 percent.  Seems like more than a coincidence, maybe.  Even if you do surf to and discover the unsettling fact that two of those three slighted Pac-10 "powerhouses" got their hats handed to them—the California Golden Bears losing 45-31 to Texas Tech in the aforementioned 2004 Holiday Bowl and the Stanford Cardinal (9-2) falling 24-14 to Georgia Tech (7-5) in the 2001 Seattle Bowl (an explanation might be in order here for latecomers to Stanford football: prior to the three-year "cultural revolution" known as BuddyBall, the Cardinal occasionally went to, and sometimes even won, bowl games)—it still seems rigged.

And it is rigged.  Openly rigged.  But first, a little more bowl history is in order.  There was a time, not so long ago, when few bowl bids were set in stone.  The Rose Bowl perennially matched the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big 10, and the Sugar Bowl always got the SEC champs.  But by and large, the holiday match-ups were sorted out during a shadowy frenzy of end-of-season horse-trading that made Ukrainian politics look above-the-board in contrast.  The process sometimes led to profoundly unfair results, but the unfairness was not exactly institutionalized.

Sometime about a decade ago, however, the high muckety-mucks from the bowls and the various conferences decided that all of that backroom dealing was getting in the way of cocktails.  So they got together, invented the BCS and parsed out the rest of the bowls.  Henceforth, they decreed, the Holiday Bowl would match Pac-10 #2 against Big 12 #3 and the Sun Bowl would be contested by Pac-10 #3 and Big 10 #5.  End of story.

The Sun Bowl arrangement, especially, was a slap in the face of West Coast football.  Prior to the establishment of the BCS, the Pac-10 had thumped the Big 10 in 19 of the previous 29 Rose Bowls, yet the Sansabelts were saying that the Left Coast's number three was no better than the fifth-best team in the upper Midwest.

Okay, then.  Since the Pac-10 is stuck with two versus three and three versus five, there's bound to be the occasional three-jacking.  Can't we all just get over it?  Can't College Football Nation move on?  Well, maybe some of us could if those three-jackings were isolated disasters, rather than just the canary in a thoroughly poisoned coal mine that stretched from Pasadena to Miami.  If four losses didn't earn Iowa a chance to play Florida in January and Cal the right to play BYU in mid-December.  If fourth place in the Big 12 didn't earn you Michigan while fourth place in the Pac-10 got you Rutgers.  If the crooked system wasn't Pac-10 teams' reward for playing a tougher non-league schedule compared to the Big 10 and Big 12 (14 bowl teams compared to 11 and 10, respectively).  If . . .

A thousand miles or so east along the border from San Diego, the west Texas city of El Paso is gussying-up for a fiesta.  Strip clubs are hiring, high school marching bands are practicing, and the Kiwanis Club is sweating the details of the annual coaches and players' chili con carne eating contest.  All the hard work will culminate on December 30, when under predictably clear desert skies, the 9-2 UCLA Bruins, third place in the Pac-10 and ranked 17th nationally, will square off in a much-anticipated Sun Bowl contest against . . . Northwestern.  Um, anybody up for poncho shopping in Juarez?

-- Many of John Jasberg's fondest bowl game memories involve the Mizlou Network.  He can be emailed at

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