If not for a few key plays, the outcome might have been different.

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ATLANTA — In t-minus three paragraphs, there will be a “but.”

By the end of the fourth quarter — actually, far earlier than that — it was clear who the superior football team was. No one can deny that Alabama is better than Washington, or that the Crimson Tide would likely beat the Huskies in any venue.

Anyone who walked away from the Peach Bowl thinking UW is operating at ’Bama’s level has blinders affixed to their foreheads.

BUT — and I’m saying this with a straight face — the Huskies could have won that game. Really.

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I realize you can apply this logic to most games decided by three touchdowns or fewer, but if not for a few key plays, that outcome might have been different. If the Huskies didn’t commit three turnovers, miss an interception, fail to recover a fumble and allow a 68-yard run, they might be in the national-championship game.

Sure, the previous sentence looks absurd when read in isolation, because that’s quite a list of occurrences. But watching it live and feeling the momentum shift with each mishap, it’s not altogether untrue.

“We definitely could have won that game,” said UW cornerback Kevin King, whose team fell 24-7. “If a few plays went differently, we would have won that game.”

To say the Huskies “let this one slip away” would be a flagrant mischaracterization given how dominant Alabama’s defense was. The Tide held Washington — ranked fourth in the nation offensively before Saturday — to 194 yards and 2.9 yards per play.

Still, many of the Huskies felt similarly to King, and expressed those feelings after the game. Even in a 17-point loss, thoughts of “what if” are still going to pop into players’ minds this offseason.

For instance, on Alabama’s first drive, quarterback Jalen Hurts threw a pass that went straight through the fingers of Washington safety Budda Baker. An interception would have given UW the ball in Alabama territory and instantly removed the Tide’s “awe” factor.

Later in the first quarter, with the game tied, 7-7, Huskies receiver John Ross fumbled at the 50, which set up a ’Bama field goal. Three straight Washington three-and-outs followed.

Even so, UW’s defense kept the game close, not allowing another score until in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Huskies quarterback Jake Browning threw an interception toward the end of the first half that Alabama returned for a touchdown.

“That’ll kill you,” Browning said.

Except the Huskies weren’t dead. Early in the third quarter, Washington linebacker Psalm Wooching forced a fumble in Alabama territory but couldn’t quite pick it up. Had he done so, the Huskies would have been one first down away from field-goal range.

And in the fourth quarter, Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough was about one inch from going down when he broke approximately 42 tackles en route to a 68-yard score. Was much of that simply Scarbrough being great? Of course. But that’s a stop Washington is going to make most of the time.

After the game, Huskies coach Chris Petersen addressed the turnovers his team committed and failed to create and acknowledged their significance.

“They’re game-changing. You don’t know what’s going to come out of them, but it’s game-changing,” Petersen said. “You feel with that type of field position, that type of momentum, good things are going to happen. Our guys know it. We just couldn’t quite make the play, for whatever reason.”

Against Alabama, though, you have to make the play. There is no margin for error, and there is no chance to win if you don’t capitalize on the Tide’s mistakes.

The Huskies understood this coming into the game and had it confirmed during. And though it’s not quite a “kicking themselves” final score, it will still leave players wondering what might have been.

“It’s the little plays that get you,” said Huskies defensive tackle Elijah Qualls. “It’s not the big plays, it’s the little plays.”

After the game, Washington linebacker Keishawn Bierria was asked what it will take for the Huskies to reach Alabama’s level.

“We’re at their level,” he responded.

Not quite. Not yet. And deep down, the Huskies have to know Alabama is the better team.

But they also have to know that, had a few of those plays gone their way, they could have beaten the better team.

It’s a long game
Alabama’s last four opponents, including Washington on Saturday, scored first against the Crimson Tide. Alabama outscored them 139-18 after the opening salvo:
Opponent and date Deficit Final score
Chattanooga, Nov. 19 3-0 after first quarter 31-3, Alabama
Auburn, Nov. 26 3-0 early first quarter 30-12, Alabama
Florida, Dec. 3 7-0 after opening drive 54-16, Alabama
Washington, Dec. 31 7-0 halfway through first quarter 24-7, Alabama