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Originally published Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Bud Withers

Pac-10 is going to have trouble filling bowl spots

Pac-10's difficult nonconference schedules make it tough to become bowl-eligible.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Ah, mid-November, so it's time to dust off an old tradition in the Pac-10: Figuring out how many of its bowl contracts will go unfilled.

2004: Seven contracts, five teams in bowls.

2005: Six contracts, five in bowls.

2008: Seven contracts, five in bowls.

This year, the league has six tie-ups, but the possibility of only three bowl-eligible teams.

Anybody sensing a pattern here?

If Oregon continues its march to the national-title game and Stanford can find its way into a BCS bowl (most likely the Rose), the league could leave four partners — the Holiday, Sun, Las Vegas and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowls — at the altar. That's probably not the kind of promotion the image-conscious commissioner, Larry Scott, has in mind.

You can envision, in early January, those ESPN discussions of each league's record, and a notation by the Pac-10: "Not enough appearances to qualify."

As always, there are two reasons: The Pac-10 is the only BCS conference that insists on playing nine league games. And it also schedules harder outside than any other league.

This year, 48 percent (15 of 31) of its nonleague games are against BCS-conference opponents. That doesn't count Oregon State's mega-games against TCU and Boise State.

The number in the SEC? Thirty-three percent. Big Ten? Twenty-seven percent. Big 12? Twenty-five percent.

Rick Neuheisel, the UCLA coach, has been the most outspoken critic of the nine-game league schedule, saying it "makes no sense" for a conference trying to upgrade its national profile. But the rest of the league viewed appearances in L.A. in the new Pac-12 as vital, so that's a ship that's sailed.

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What is more negotiable is each school's choice of nonleague opponents. And Neuheisel, whose team played two Big 12 opponents on the road and hosted Houston, says, "Every coach will be in those (athletic director's) offices, saying, 'We've got to be smart here.' My personal standpoint is, you schedule two games you feel good about and one great one for your fans."

Washington overloaded itself this year with BYU (5-5 after a slow start), an improved Syracuse team (7-3) and national contender Nebraska (9-1). Says coach Steve Sarkisian, "It can be difficult if you go 1-2 in the nonconference. I think you're starting to see teams understand that."

One of those is Washington, which next year has a more manageable schedule that includes Eastern Washington, Hawaii (although the Warriors could win 10 this year) and Nebraska.

"We had a brutal schedule this year," says athletic director Scott Woodward. "From a competition standpoint, I like next year's schedule a lot better than this year's."

If anybody's going to come away happy from this year's Pac-10 bowl deficit, it could be that No. 4 team to become eligible. If Oregon goes to the title game, Stanford slips into the Rose and Arizona moves up to the Alamo, the Holiday Bowl will be a choice landing spot for California (5-5), Washington (3-6) or UCLA (4-5). In the past seven years, the worst record in the Holiday Bowl was last year's Arizona team, at 8-4.

Crimson, Gray matter

We get it, it's all about wins and losses. Most of it, anyway. Still, it counts for something that Washington State landed a league-high seven members on the Pac-10 all-academic team announced Tuesday: Jared Karstetter (zoology), Micah Hannam (civil engineering), Chris Prummer (zoology), Kevin Kooyman and Casey Hamlett (management and operations), Kyle McCartney (entrepreneurship) and Chima Nwachukwu (political science).

Coach Paul Wulff says it's a sign of a solid foundation and adds that it will be discussed in the homes of recruits.

"If I'm a parent, it should mean a lot," he said. "It should mean it's a healthy situation."

And what's more ...

• In a series that dates to 1892, Stanford visits California in the 113th Big Game on Saturday. One itch the Cardinal hasn't scratched much lately is beating the Bears; they've only done it once since the Tyrone Willingham era ended in 2001.

• "We're in like a free-fall here," says Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose 4-5 team hosts USC, having won the past two meetings in Corvallis.

• The pick Thursday night at Montlake: Washington 27, UCLA 21. Emotion shouldn't be in short supply, even as parking spaces are.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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