Mocked for their soft non-conference schedules, the Huskies get a shot at a big-boy SEC foe in the opener. But a loss to a good foe early is hardly a risk. It sure beats playing Idaho.
One of the more exotic charms in the often dubious world of college football is the chance to play foes from planets never previously encountered. Sort of like the long-running Star Trek franchise, where opponents vary from cute and fuzzy Tribbles (Idaho) to the omnipotent Q (Auburn).
Over more than a century of collegiate head-slams, the Huskies and the Tigers have never played one another. That makes the debut meeting Saturday in Atlanta (ABC, 12:30 p.m.) all the more intriguing, especially since Washington is ranked sixth and Auburn ninth in the Associated Press’s preseason poll.
As cosmologists and college fans will tell you, Auburn comes from the Southeastern Conference, which is populated mostly by colleges in smaller Southern cities where foobaw is the only substantive entertainment beyond Popeil Pocket Fisherman commercial re-runs. The Huskies represent the Pac-12, where air kisses and algorithms are among the habits of the tony effetes.
Even Huskies coach Chris Petersen has looked up from his playbook to notice.
“I think football is very important in the South and is part of the culture,” he said. “It’s awesome. From the players growing up to the fans, that’s what they do. I always think it’s neat to be around places that are so passionate about something like that.”
The one little nuisance with that is since the fans are indoctrinated when they are zygotes, they are persuaded they know more than the poor sap hired to coach the team. With many SEC football jobs, the new guy starts three touchdowns behind Alabama and is asked to explain himself.
Petersen feels a little of that in Seattle, but most sports fans here get to choose among Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, Storm, boats, mountains and sitting in traffic, so the Huskies are substantially less than the center of the universe.
“We’ve got passionate people out here, but it just seems like, across the board in those regions of the country, it’s just passion for football,” he said. “Out here, even in Seattle, there’s some people that don’t even know we have a football team.”
It’s true, although UW manages to have a football scandal about once a decade that leaks onto the home pages of national news platforms. So the Huskies do get some broader attention, even if they’re still stuck in the shadow of men’s and women’s crew.
Culture clash aside, from a competitive football perspective, the match-up represents a decisive departure from UW’s recent history of scheduling non-conference opponents so weak that one of its broadcast partners, ESPN, mocked the Huskies a year ago as Cupcake U.
The nadir actually was reached in 2016 when the Huskies’ non-conference bookings were Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State. The combined score was 148-30. Full ticket prices were charged, but in fairness, the band was good.
The scheduling was largely a legacy of former athletics director Scott Woodward, who had the chore of rebuilding from an 0-11 season in 2008 under coach Tyrone Willingham.
Woodward stooped to hire the youngest head coach in the NCAA, Steve Sarkisian, who had no previous head coaching experience. To help him, Woodward went all Betty Crocker on future schedules, which of course backfires once a team reaches the range of the New Year’s Six bowls and the newer playoffs.
Petersen, Sarkisian’s successor, does not need training wheels, not after successive appearances against Alabama and Penn State in prestige bowl games. The Huskies have drawn their first opener against a top-10 opponent since the heyday of coach Jim Owens. In 1962, the No. 10 Huskies invited No. 7 Purdue to Husky Stadium for a 7-7 tie.
Since 1989, the Huskies have opened against a ranked team 12 times, but five were conference foes. The seven others were No. 19 BYU in 1997 (W, 42-20), No. 11 Michigan in 2001 (W, 23-18), No. 12 at Michigan in 2002 (L, 31-29), at No. 2 Ohio State in 2003 (L, 28-9), No. 11 LSU in 2009 (L, 31-23), No. 19 Boise State in 2013 (W, 38-6), and No. 23 at Boise State in 2015 (L, 16-13).
If BYU and Boise State are removed because of their lesser competition, that leaves only four openers with teams from powerhouse conferences over nearly three decades. That’s about once every seven years, which is probably all the early-season risk most coaches dare undertake these days. But is this really a risk for UW?
The upperclass-dominant Huskies are heavily favored to win the Pac-12 title and have a decent shot at returning to the College Football Playoffs. They are mere 1½-point underdogs to Auburn in the heart of SEC country, suggesting that even a close loss early to a quality team will be a scratch on their final 2018 resume, not a dent.
“It’s one game against a good team,” he said. “Win or lose, we have a bunch after that. No matter what happens, it doesn’t make or break our season. It just doesn’t.
“You talk about mythical and all this kind of stuff. Are you trying to scare our guys or what? We’re already nervous enough.”
You have to indulge your questioners, Mr. P. The exotic species of a premier non-conference foe is encountered so rarely, it is seen as more formidable. You can’t have your cupcake, and eat it too.