There was a palpable sense of relief among the Washington players who walked off the field at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
As their coach, Chris Petersen, put it: “I’m just glad we got out of here.”
The 10th-ranked Huskies needed a fourth-quarter touchdown and some clutch defense at the very end to escape with a 31-24 win over underdog UCLA, but the victory might have come with a cost.
In a few weeks, when the College Football Playoff selection committee begins issuing its weekly rankings, a close-call against an 0-5 opponent probably won’t swing many votes in their direction.
“Probably, from the outside, people wouldn’t have expected that,” linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said of the final score.
The problem is, Washington represents the best remaining hope for the Pac-12 Conference to grab one of the four CFP slots. And that figured to be an uphill battle from the start.
Fourteen years have passed since the Pac-12 last had a national champion in football, and even that title was vacated when USC got hit with NCAA sanctions.
In the CFP era, the conference has fought its way into the playoffs just twice. Eight months ago, its teams went 1-8 in bowl games, with Washington, Stanford and USC losing in high-profile matchups.
So the Southeastern, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences entered the fall with a head start if only because of their recent postseason successes. The eventual champions from the Pac-12 and Big 12, along with Notre Dame, were expected to fight over the remaining slot in the bracket.
“Much was written and discussed about our bowl record last year,” Commissioner Larry Scott said this summer. “From our perspective, a handful of season-ending games are not a key indicator of a conference’s overall strength and competitiveness.”
The Pac-12 could have revived its tarnished reputation with a few big wins during the month of September.
Washington had the first and biggest chance on opening weekend, facing Auburn in a “neutral site” matchup that, because of its location in Atlanta, equated to a road game.
Beforehand, Petersen tried to downplay the significance.
“I mean, I know everybody wants to put it all about this one thing — the Pac-12 is either good or not — on one game,” he said. “That’s totally unrealistic.”
It is true the Huskies might have earned the benefit of the doubt for going toe-to-toe in a 21-16 defeat, but a loss is a loss and the following weeks brought more of them for the Pac-12.
UCLA got swamped by Oklahoma and USC fell to Texas. Last week, with a chance to score a signature victory at Notre Dame, Stanford wilted in the fourth quarter.
As coach David Shaw said: “We played our worst game of the year against the best team we’ve played all year.”
So, with the first CFP poll scheduled for Oct. 30, where does the Pac-12 stand?
Four of the preseason favorites – Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson – are still undefeated. So is Notre Dame.
It helped that Oklahoma lost on Saturday, but West Virginia is making a case for the Big 12.
That leaves a slim opening for teams in the West.
Stanford lost to Utah 40-21 Saturday night. Oregon and Colorado can still run the table and win a conference championship, though the Buffaloes might not earn much respect coming from the weakened South Division.
So the Huskies remain in the best position.
They won’t have the star power of a Heisman Trophy candidate. And the committee probably won’t be dazzled by their overall strength of schedule.
But Washington still has potential Top 25 matchups against Oregon, Colorado and Stanford. If those teams keep winning, the Huskies can earn valuable points by defeating them.
“We never pay attention to midseason rankings,” Petersen said. “The only rankings that mean anything to us is when the season is said and done … that’s our team ranking and how many wins we have.”
Quarterback Jake Browning echoed this sentiment when asked about the potential repercussions of Saturday night’s outcome against UCLA.
“A win is a win,” he said.