It’s Oregon. That’s usually all that needs to be said when evaluating the significance of Washington’s next game.

The Ducks are the Huskies’ true nemesis, with the lopsidedness of UW’s rivalry with Washington State firmly established. The Ducks have become the standard of Pacific Northwest football — shoot, make that Pacific football — with six Pac-12 championships since 2009.

The Ducks tend to dominate the recruiting battle with Washington, as would be expected given that they’ve won 15 of the past 17 head-to-heads. So regardless of records, this is almost always the most anticipated regular-season contest for the Dawgs and their fans.

But what is specifically at stake in this season’s matchup? What does Washington have to play for beyond pure bragging rights with their rivals from Eugene? Turns out, quite a few things. 

Starting with the quarterback. 

Michael Penix Jr. isn’t a four-year UW starter like Jake Locker or Jake Browning was. Barring a miracle, he won’t be leading Washington to a conference championship, either. But the man is second in the country in passing yards (3,232) and in the midst of one of the most prolific seasons in UW history. But most of that will be forgotten about if he doesn’t rack up the key victories.

To be sure, the Huskies (7-2, 4-2 in the Pac-12) have been successful under the fifth-year junior transfer from Indiana. The College Football Playoff committee having them No. 25 in its latest poll attests to that. But there hasn’t been a signature victory for Washington under Penix, and that’s how legacies are solidified.

Advertising

Basketball phenom Markelle Fultz came to UW six years ago and posted ridiculous stats (23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds) — leading the Pac-12 in player-efficiency rating en route to being picked first overall in the NBA draft. But he is no UW legend. His team didn’t win. Penix might have dazzled in his short time at Washington, but topping the Ducks is how he goes down in Husky lore.

There is also the coach. 

It’s tough to say whether Kalen DeBoer has exceeded expectations in his first year at the Huskies helm. A 7-2 start might suggest that, but the absence of a marquee victory (the Michigan State win was a mirage) along with a loss to Arizona State and a much-closer-than-it-should-have-been triumph over Arizona has muted his résumé to an extent.

I think folks around here are curious as to how far he has truly advanced the program. And as the aforementioned recruiting wars are concerned, beating Oregon would send a salient signal. 

The oddsmakers aren’t all that convinced Washington is a power player yet. That’s the message being sent as the Ducks (8-1, 6-0) sit as 13-point favorites vs. the visiting Huskies. But a win in Eugene? A dismantling of the one team yet to lose a Pac-12 game this season? That would alert the college football world that DeBoer is just beginning to mold this program. A boat-race loss, on the other hand, might raise questions about how far he can take these Huskies. 

And the future is more tenuous than it has been in a long time for Washington. 

The feeling around college football is that those teams not already locked in with the SEC or Big Ten are auditioning for a spot in a super conference. Not necessarily next year or the year after that, but definitely within the next few trips around the sun. UW is a solid program with a rich history that includes a national championship and several Pac-12 titles. But it isn’t a national brand on par with Oregon or some of the SEC and Big Ten staples. Head-turning victories are what build such brands. Double-digit win seasons, which Washington can still pull off by beating Oregon, are what grow a program’s appeal.

Advertising

The Huskies are in the conversation as one of the country’s more respectable football teams. They can quickly slide out of that conversation via a blowout defeat. Or they can elevate themselves to heights unseen since the Chris Petersen era Saturday. Like I said, there’s quite a bit on the line. 

Top-tier athletes typically have all the motivation they need whenever they take the field. And that goes double for any time the Huskies meet Oregon, regardless of where they are in the standings. That won’t change Saturday.

But there are legacies on the line here as well. There are doubts and questions that will be addressed. The Huskies always want this win. This year, they might want it just a bit more.