Despite Chris Petersen's assertion that UW's game against Auburn is just "one game against a really good team," the Huskies are carrying the weight of their conference into Saturday's huge game against the SEC's elite.
ATLANTA — All offseason, the Huskies have heard how big, how important Saturday’s opener is, and how necessary a win over Auburn is not only for their own national-title hopes but for the credibility of the Pac-12 at large.
The Huskies know how the rest of the country perceives the Pac-12, and how a strong showing against a top-10 opponent in SEC country could change much of that.
“That’s one of the reasons I want to win — just to show people that the Pac-12 can hang with anyone,” UW senior defensive tackle Greg Gaines said. “We always get a bad rap with the East Coast bias and stuff like that. I think we’ve got a lot of good teams in the Pac-12 — we’re just as physical, just as tough, and I think we’re going to do pretty well.”
The Pac-12 went 1-8 in bowl games last season, including the Huskies’ 35-28 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. This is the first — and best — chance for the conference to prove itself on a national stage since.
“Don’t even call it Auburn-UW. It’s SEC-Pac-12, right?” the Pac-12 Networks’ Yogi Roth said. “This conference needs this game, just for reputation outside of the footprint. Everyone says ‘1-8 in the bowls,’ but over the last five years the Pac-12 has the second-best bowl record. Nobody pays attention to that that isn’t on the West Coast.”
ABC/ESPN’s Steve Levy, part of Saturday’s broadcast team, called this a “make or break” game for the Huskies’ season. That might be overstating things, but there’s little doubt many will quickly eliminate the Huskies from the College Football Playoff chase if they perform poorly.
ESPN’s “Football Power Index,” an abstruse projection calculation system, gives the No. 6 Huskies a 55 percent chance of reaching the CFP with a win over No. 9 Auburn, and just a 28 percent chance if they lose.
The Huskies have lost their last three out-of-conference games against ranked opponents — the opener at No. 23 Boise State in 2015, the national semifinal against No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta and the Fiesta Bowl to Penn State.
But dating back to their days at Boise State, Chris Petersen and his staff do have a strong history of success in these types of showcase games. Boise State, ranked No. 5 at the time, beat No. 19 Georgia in Atlanta to open the 2011 season, and Petersen had signature nonconference wins over Virginia Tech (2010), Oregon (2008 and ’09), plus the famous Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma at the end of the 2006 season.
Ancient history? Perhaps. But this staff says there are lessons that can carry over from preparing for those kind — these kind — of matchups.
“There are, yeah, for us as coaches,” said UW co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, a longtime Petersen aide. “But not for the players. These guys have never done it. It’s going to all be new and exciting to them. They have been in Atlanta, but we’ve never been in this stadium and we’ve never played Auburn. You can’t make it more than it is; it’s just another football game.”
That’s the approach Petersen is taking with his team, of course. As he is wont to do in most situations, Petersen this week downplayed the significance of Saturday’s opener.
“We can’t make it bigger than it is. You talk about mythical and all this kind of stuff — are you trying to scare our guys or what? We’re already nervous enough,” he quipped.
“We’re not playing their whole conference,” he added. “It’s our first game, it’s one game against a really good team that’s going to be a team that a lot of people are going to be talking about throughout the season. We know that. That’s what it is. I just think it’s really important that we have this — the coaches have this in perspective. It’s one game against a good team. Win or lose, we have a bunch after us.
“No matter what happens it doesn’t make or break our season. It just doesn’t.”