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?
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 this is the second in our series rating how much each of the conference bowl teams needs to win its bowl game. You can review the first entry here. We're working our way up from the bottom, so this No. 3.
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The set up: Stanford earned its first berth in a BCS bowl game since the Rose Bowl following the 1999 season by virtue of finishing ranked fourth in the final BCS standings. Virginia Tech earned its invitation after winning the ACC championship, bouncing back from a horrific 0-2 start that included a loss to Boise State (not so bad) and James Madison (very, very bad). The Cardinal gives the Pac-10 its first season with two BCS bowl teams since 2002. Virginia Tech is hoping to bolster the ACC's flagging reputation, which includes a 2-10 record in BCS bowl games. The Hokies defense isn't up to typical Bud Foster standards, particularly against the run, but it ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and its 22 interceptions rank second in the nation. This will be a good test for Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck. And the Hokies have plenty of team speed on offense, starting with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the ACC’s Player of the Year, and that could stress the Stanford defense.
Why Stanford needs to win: Stanford is the only Pac-10 team favored to win this bowl season, though only by 3.5 points. That means if Vegas knows what it's talking about -- and Vegas typically does -- a Cardinal slip could lead to an 0-4 postseason for the conference, which would not do much for the national image of West Coast college football heading into year one of the Pac-12 Era. Stanford needs to win because it's expected to win and because the conference needs to validate itself at the highest level in order to defend its place in the upper-half of the BCS conference pecking order. Further, the Cardinal needs to win to cap one of the best season's in program history. A season can't be termed truly great if it doesn't end with a bowl victory. This is an opportunity that isn't typical for Stanford, which functions as an "Ivy League" school playing FBS football. Who knows when the Cardinal will be back? And who knows if coach Jim Harbaugh isn't headed out the door to, say, Michigan or the NFL? Stanford must win because the future is uncertain and special seasons don't happen on a regular basis.
Why just getting there is enough: While Stanford went to the Rose Bowl after the 1999 season, that was mostly a fluke during a down year in the Pac-10 (the Cardinal finished 8-4 and unranked in the AP poll and eight Pac-10 teams had five or more defeats). The Cardinal went 1-11 in 2006. Stanford has finished a season ranked in the top-10 just once (1992) since 1972. This is a highly unusual season for Stanford, one that will rank among the program's best no matter what happens 3,000 miles from Palo Alto against a traditional power. When the final book is written about Stanford in 2010, it doesn't make sense to believe that an 11-2 finish would be chiefly remembered for a disappointing bowl game. Further, there is zero pressure on Harbaugh, who's completely rebuilt the program from patsy to contender. In fact, Stanford fans would probably sacrifice a bowl victory if it meant Harbaugh would then be motivated to return to The Farm to finish the job he started.
Conclusion: A Stanford win would do more for the Pac-10 as a whole than for Stanford football, which has turned in a great season by any measure considering the program's history and the academic demands of the institution. Still, the Cardinal is the better team. It should win. So failing to finish a great season on an uptick would certainly not feel good for the coaches and players -- and fans -- who invested so much the success of the regular season.
Needs to win meter (scale of 1 to 10, "10" being a must-win): 6.