It was an answer that, in years past, would have left no room for interpretation.

“We will end the season with roses in our mouths,” Huskies running back Sean McGrew said

The Rose Bowl was once the ultimate destination for any Pac-12 team. It could still net a national championship if it won the Granddaddy of Them All — and often did as a result — but as we know now, there often is a higher goal. 

Still, if you ask other Huskies, such as running back Kamari Pleasant or quarterback Dylan Morris, the answer to “What are your expectations?” never ends with the “national championship” but rather “win the conference, and play in a big-time bowl game.” 

McGrew was asked if he and his teammates discuss the Rose Bowl specifically.

“We know the College Football Playoff isn’t something that we’re in control of,” he said. 

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It’s the return of fans (finally!) and key players as optimism surrounds the Huskies and Cougars. Get ready for the return of college football with our 10-page special section coming Friday in print and all week online.


College football preview 2021

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And they likely know that the College Football Playoff committee might not think a whole lot of the Pac-12. 

Conference dominance in college football is often cyclical, but the Pac-12 seems to have been left out of the cycle. Obviously, last year was nearly impossible to evaluate, given the conference played so few games, but considering most other conferences played close to a full slate, they may have further distanced themselves from the schools on the West Coast. 

The point here is straightforward: The Pac-12 has to dominate its nonconference opponents to have any chance of getting back into the CFP. Its reputation is so tainted by recent failures that being on the bubble will almost certainly lead to playoff exclusion. 

No school from the conference has reached the playoff since UW did it in 2016. No school from the conference has won a CFP game since Oregon did it in 2014. And no team from the conference has captured the national title since the NCAA switched from the BCS to the CFP (and even then it’s been 17 years, when USC won its now-vacated title). It’s an embarrassment that could very well get worse in the coming months. 

Most conferences are filled with rivalries spawned by location, tradition or mutual success. And I imagine those intraconference matchups are the ones the majority of fans most look forward to. But for the Pac-12 this year, the interconference games will be just as intriguing. Simply put: They need to win them.

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Washington has to take down the Wolverines when it heads to Ann Arbor on Sept. 11. Oregon has to do the same when it takes on Ohio State in Columbus that day. Telling a Husky fan to root for the Ducks at any point might cause a gag reflex, but it’s essential during this nonconference slate.  

USC’s October matchup vs. Notre Dame might not be a must-win for the Trojans’ conference-championship hopes, but it’s a must-win for the conference. Same with Utah when it takes on BYU in its second game, or for Arizona State when it meets BYU in its third game. And if the unranked UCLA Bruins beats No. 16 LSU on the road, hey, that certainly would help the cause as well. 

Washington coach Jimmy Lake has long felt there was an East Coast bias in college-football polling. He has said himself that he had trouble watching West Coast games when he was coaching with Detroit and Tampa Bay in the NFL. 

As a Huskies assistant, when he was a little more brazen with his quotes, he said, “I do think there’s a bigger microscope every time we (Pac-12 teams) lose a game against an opponent from anywhere else.”

Except that, in the regular season at least, the Pac-12 has kept losing those games. 

It’s wonderful that things are getting back to normal sports-wise around here. Watching a handful of games in empty stadiums just didn’t have the same vibe of a capacity crowd yelling “thiiiiird down!” on key defensive stands for the Huskies. 

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But this conference better hope things don’t stay too normal. It’s time for the Pac-12 to show it isn’t merely an afterthought. 

McGrew was being both bold and realistic when he said the season will end with roses in his and his teammates’ mouths. That would be quite the scene. 

But he and his fellow Pac-12 athletes can do something even bigger than that. For that to happen, though, they have to prove it on the field.


REWIND | Watch our 2021 Pac-12 preview chat with Ryan Leaf