Every bowl game is important. But, really, they're not that important. A bowl game can be a springboard -- or banana peel -- leading into the next season. But it almost certainly doesn't connect one season to the next in any meaningful way, as a win or a loss can be spun as motivation going forward.
You can frame the bowl season however you wish. It's a Rorschach test, and media and fans offer myriad interpretations annually, interpretations that often have a shelf life that doesn't endure more than 24 hours after any particular bowl has been contested.
Bowls are simple, really. If there is a bowl game, as it is a football game, it is better to win it than lose it. But extrapolating much beyond that is pretty meaningless, unless that bowl game includes confetti and a national championship trophy.
Of course, that isn't going to stop us from ranking the Pac-12 bowl games according to "importance."
By "importance," we're referring to how important the bowl game is to the individual team. We are not not referring to how important the game might be to the Pac-12 or the Pac-12's national perception, though that does intersect with individual teams that have national rankings and/or a consistent place in the national dialogue, such as Stanford or Oregon or USC or UCLA.
We will work from least important to most important. We shall surely offend. So, in advance, apologies.
10. Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: West Virginia (7-5) vs. Arizona State (6-6)
Sun Devils coach Todd Graham doesn't want to post his first losing season in Tempe. Further, this game is a Pac-12 vs. Big 12 matchup, so it raises an eyebrow when you debate the relative quality of conferences. And seniors like quarterback Mike Bercovici want to go out on a positive note. Still, this game won't take away the sting of a supremely disappointing season for Arizona State, and winning or losing it won't have much effect on what needs to happen during the offseason as the Sun Devils try to right their ship. Further, it certainly won't put Graham on the hot seat, as he's surely earned first-accident forgiveness.
9. Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl: Southern Miss (9-4) vs. Washington (6-6)
Washington is on a decided uptick, and if it wins this game it will bolster its case to earn a preseason ranking in 2016. That plus posting a winning season as well as not losing to a non-Power 5 team should offer plenty of motivation. Still, here's a guess that if you ask an average college football fan or even an average college football pundit in March who won the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl they will completely draw a blank, though they might get hungry for some chicken fingers. My sense is Huskies fans know there is plenty to be optimistic about heading into 2016, and this game won't change that.
8. Gildan New Mexico Bowl: New Mexico (7-5) vs. Arizona (6-6)
This game is important because Arizona should always beat New Mexico, so losing to New Mexico will be embarrassing for the Wildcats, not to mention it will give Rich Rodriguez his first losing season in Tucson. That would matter less if folks weren't a little bothered by his apparent wandering eye -- South Carolina, in particular -- after the regular season ended. Still, this is mostly a lost season for the Wildcats, one that was ruined by injuries and under-performance. What matters is the Wildcats righting themselves in 2016. Arizona fans -- and players and coaches -- would gladly sacrifice this game to bring back linebacker Scooby Wright, who will play in the bowl but has yet to announce yay or nay on his NFL intentions, or to restore the inconsistent trajectory of QB Anu Solomon's career.
7. Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)
This game is more important to the Cougars because they lost the Apple Cup to Washington than it would have been otherwise. This has been a strong season in Pullman, and it earned coach Mike Leach Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, but losing the final two games of any season tends to leave an annoying taste in the mouth, particularly with a program that is trying to block out visions of past crumbles when things seemed to be moving in the right direction. So the Cougs could use the good feelings a bowl win generates, not to mention the shot to finish with a national ranking. That said, a salve for losing this bowl game will be looking at what is coming back in 2016, which should be enough to make Washington State a legit threat in the North Division.
6. Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual: No. 5 Iowa (12-1) vs. No. 6 Stanford (11-2)
The Rose Bowl is always important, and Stanford would represent the Pac-12 well by beating Iowa and finishing with a top-five final ranking. Still, if the Cardinal lose this game, it won't greatly diminish its bona fides as a national power. Big Ten fans might gloat over bookended victories, seeing Stanford lost its opener at Northwestern, but the Cardinal won the Pac-12, which makes this a successful season regardless.
5. Valero Alamo Bowl: No. 11 TCU (10-2) vs. No. 15 Oregon (9-3)
This game is important because it's a matchup of ranked teams from the Big 12 and Pac-12. In fact, outside of the College Football Playoff and the New Year's Six bowls, this is one of the bowl season's best games. We also could see both teams healthier than when they ended the regular season, particularly TCU with quarterback Trevone Boykin and, perhaps, receiver Josh Doctson. For Oregon, a seven-game winning streak to end the season and final ranking near the top 10 would certainly fit in with the narrative of the program's consistent elite status. Still, the Ducks as a program are in a pretty good place. Losing to a good TCU team won't change that.
4. Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska (5-7) vs. UCLA (8-4)
It feels like if UCLA wins this game, it can claim a reasonably successful season, despite an epidemic of critical injuries. At the very least, disaster will be avoided. If the Bruins lose, the 2015 season will feel like a failure, losing three of the final four to fall out of the national rankings and South Division race, ending a three-game winning streak against USC in the process and falling to a mediocre team with a losing record in the bowl game. This game ranks fourth instead of higher because of one reason: QB Josh Rosen. It will be difficult to be too pessimistic heading into the offseason knowing he'll be back behind center next fall. Win or lose, the Bruins are almost certain to be ranked in the 2016 preseason.
3. Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force (8-5) vs. California (7-5)
This game fits in well with our introduction. Nationally, this game won't register. But it will register significantly for Cal fans after a rumor-filled November and December with coach Sonny Dykes, who was having a contract squabble with administrators while he was approached about a number of other jobs. Dykes could really, really use an impressive performance to get Old Blues optimistic about the future. It also would benefit QB Jared Goff to have a nice send-off as he almost certainly is headed to the 2016 NFL draft.
2. Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin (9-3) vs. No. 25 USC (8-5)
Some people are excited that Clay Helton was promoted from interim to full-time head coach, most notably inside the locker room and USC administration buildings. Some are not, mostly fans who were hoping for a big-name hire. Beating a good Wisconsin team won't win over all those who are ambivalent about his hiring, but it sure as heck won't hurt. It also might give Helton some juice for the homestretch of recruiting. This game will get significant national coverage because it is USC. If the Trojans turn in an awful performance, like they did in the 2012 Sun Bowl under Lane Kiffin, the offseason will start horribly, something Helton really wants to avoid.
1. Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: BYU (9-3) vs. No. 22 Utah (9-3)
I wrote about the Holy War -- its absence, actually -- in an August mailbag. Afterwards, Utah fans wrote to inform me they didn't care about BYU. About 50 Utes fans took time out of their busy lives to write me about something they didn't care about. A few BYU fans, meanwhile, wrote to say that Utah fans would erupt with consternation at my assertion that Utah fans care about -- read: hate -- BYU. In other words, this one matters deeply to both teams on an almost spiritual level. If the Utes win, they will have a successful season, likely ending up nationally ranked. If they lose, they will not, particularly with BYU in a coaching transition.