Bowl games are rewards for successful seasons. At least that's the theory.
But what if you lose your bowl game? What does that say about that so-called successful season?
If you've watched college football for many years, you know bowl games often operate as a season unto themselves. And the team that wins is likely the one that is more motivated, not necessarily the more talented team or the one that posted the best regular season.
Some teams tank in a bowl game because they are just happy to be there. Others treat it like a vacation and lack focus. And others wish they were somewhere else -- think of California's flat and uninspired performances in the 2004 Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech after the Bears got Mack Brown-ed out of the Rose Bowl.
It's hard to call a bowl game a "must-win" because it's really not -- rarely does a bowl, for example, determine a coach's fate. But it seems reasonable to measure the four Pac-10 bowl games in terms of "need to win."
So that's what we'll do, starting at the bottom and working our way up.
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The set up: The Huskies are trying to prove they are ready to rejoin the national discussion. The feeling in the preseason -- with quarterback Jake Locker leading 20 starters back from a 5-7 team -- was they were on the cusp of breaking through in Year 2 under coach Steve Sarkisian. Some even saw them as dark-horse conference contenders. And a certain Sept. 18 showdown was circled in red on the schedule as an afternoon to walk the walk. Oh, but that red circle became a red tide of woe! Nebraska swaggered into Husky Stadium and just kicked the pooh out of Washington, 56-21, rushing for 383 yards in a show of physical dominance that deflated the Huskies and their fans. Moreover, at that moment on a big stage, Locker, who turned in his worst game of the season, became a candidate for the "Nation's Most Disappointing Player." Washington would scramble for bowl eligibility and finish a tepid 6-6, while the Cornhuskers wander into a bowl matchup that likely has them yawning, perhaps looking back at what might have been.
Why Washington needs to win: The Huskies must redeem themselves for a pitiful, soft performance in the regular-season game. Locker must redeem himself for a 4-for-20, two interception performance that began the steep slide of his NFL draft prospects. It's hard to imagine Nebraska will bring its A-game. No matter the protestations of coach Bo Pelini, the Cornhuskers won't be at an emotional peak. The Huskies can take advantage of that. But it also is part of the pregame story that gives Nebraska an excuse for posting a lackluster performance. The Huskies don't have that excuse. If they get pounded again, the college football nation will -- justifiably -- see a wide, physical chasm between the Huskies and the Huskers, and that will carry over into 2011. Washington and the Pac-12 can't afford that perception.
Why Washington just getting there is enough: This game has been widely panned by pundits because the perception is the Huskies have no chance. They are 14-point underdogs, and that spread includes the belief that Nebraska won't been terribly focused. Because no one expects the Huskies to win, just playing a more competitive game than the Sept.18 meeting is really all that matters. Locker, obviously, will want to post better numbers, but the reason Washington has little chance is the Huskers are significantly better on both lines. Everyone with eyes knows that.
Conclusion: The Huskies haven't been to a bowl game since 2002. They went 0-12 in 2008. Just getting a bowl berth is enough for the program to take a step forward under Sarkisian. An upset here would do wonders for the program's emotions heading into the offseason, but it would be pure gravy and won't change the fact that the Huskies need to upgrade their talent to compete at a Top-25 level.
Needs to win meter (scale of 1 to 10, "10" being a must-win): 3.