On Feb. 2, while discussing his program’s incoming recruiting class, Kalen DeBoer was asked what he wants prospects to see when they visit Washington.

“I think it’s about showing what we’re capable of doing,” DeBoer said, raising his hand to the sky for added emphasis. “There’s two national-championship trophies sitting in our trophy case. There’s a lot of Pac-12 championships that have happened here, the Rose Bowl appearances, all the players that have developed and went on to the NFL. So, it’s showing what’s capable of happening from that standpoint.”

Which brings us, of course, to the College Football Playoff and conference realignment … and whether Washington will still be capable of winning a national title in 2026.

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(Of course, it might be worth debating if a Pac-12 program is capable of climbing that particular mountain as it is, considering the conference has been shut out of the CFP since UW succumbed to Alabama in 2016. But that’s a different argument for a drearier day.)

The current iteration of the College Football Playoff, which features four annual at-large bids, is set to expire following the 2025 season. Last year, a brain trust comprising SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby proposed a 12-team model to take its place, featuring the six highest-ranked conference champions as well as six at-large participants.

The Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC — members of an “alliance” that has since imploded with industry-altering intensity — collectively, and bafflingly, blocked the proposal.

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Of course, you know what happened next.

USC and UCLA agreed last month to join the Big Ten in 2024, weakening a betrayed and vulnerable Pac-12 while further separating the Big Ten and SEC from the rest of the pack. As college football’s expanding overlords, the Big Ten and SEC suddenly wield unparalleled power in determining the immediate future of the CFP.

And while speaking at SEC Media Days on Monday, Sankey made it clear that his previous proposal — which the Pac-12 in particular would now be desperate to accept — is unsurprisingly off the table.

Essentially, the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 had their chance to solidify a playoff structure that would all but guarantee access to their conference champions. (Such a format might have even appeased USC and UCLA, but that’s yet another argument for a drearier day.)

Oh, and now? Not so much.

“If we’re going to go back to square one, we’re going to take a step back from the model introduced and rethink the approach, number of teams, whether there should be any guarantee for conference champions at all. Just earn your way in,” Sankey said. “There’s something that’s healthy competitively about that and creates expectations and support around programs.”

Of course, “earning your way in” is easier when strength of schedule and national exposure favor — you guessed it — the Big Ten and the SEC.  

Still, a 12-team model — even without automatic qualifiers — might still present UW with a greater opportunity for inclusion than the current format.

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But take away teams, and that opportunity erodes.

“I’d be fine with no (automatic qualifiers) — whether it’s four (teams) like we have now, a model that’s worked, eight, 12,” Sankey continued. “But the inclusion of conference champion access was, I thought, an effective compromise to the (previously proposed) 12-team playoff.”

For Washington, the worst-case scenario — outside of a Big Ten/SEC-exclusive playoff — is a four-, six- or eight-team model entirely comprising at-large bids, the vast majority of which would inevitably be sucked into the Big Ten/SEC stratosphere. While it’d be possible for UW (or any other outside program) to qualify, the odds would increasingly fall in the super conferences’ favor.

In other words: Saint Peter’s can’t upset Kentucky if it doesn’t get invited to the dance.

Granted, Washington is a far cry from Saint Peter’s as well. Like DeBoer noted, UW’s considerable trophy case features 17 conference titles, seven Rose Bowl wins and a pair of national championships. The Huskies have a nationally recognizable brand, a distinguished athletic tradition, a reputable academic ranking … and a seismically significant media market as well.

While the Big Ten and SEC seem set (for the moment) with 16 teams, UW has perhaps more to offer than any other outside program — be it to the Pac-12, the Big 12 or the ACC.

And, when it comes to conference realignment, UW president Ana Mari Cauce and athletic director Jen Cohen must prioritize potential playoff access above all else.

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But which conference would provide the clearest annual path to the CFP? An ESPN report Monday stated that talks between the Pac-12 and Big 12 regarding a partnership or full merger have ended without an agreement. The Pac-12 — currently in an exclusive 30-day media-rights negotiating window with existing partners ESPN and Fox — could also consider a partnership with the ACC that might somewhat stabilize both leagues.

For UW, other options include headlining (alongside Oregon) a surviving Pac-12 while waiting for the Big Ten to (hopefully?) come calling, perhaps while earning a larger slice of the revenue pie. The Pac-12 could also consider expanding, either by poaching Group of Five programs like San Diego State and SMU, or somehow convincing Kansas, Baylor, TCU, Houston, BYU, etc., to betray the suddenly bullish Big 12.

But if UW deems the Pac-12 a sinking ship, and/or doubts the eventuality of a Big Ten invite, it might also explore full membership in the Big 12 or ACC. Such a move would likely require a long-term commitment, as the Big 12’s next media-rights deal commences in 2025 and the ACC’s grant of rights agreement ties its programs’ television revenue to the conference through 2036.

As the realignment wheel keeps spinning, the Huskies have options — and non-negotiables.

UW has long been capable of winning a national title. Its next move, whatever that is, must ultimately protect said capability — and help the Huskies add to their trophy case.