UW's Chris Petersen: "Our kids, they understand who Auburn is. ... We’re talking about playing the best of the best right now."
The college football season begins for Washington in 132 days, and the Huskies, of course, have already some homework on their first opponent.
That early homework is done every year, for every opponent, by the time spring practices come to an end. But because the Huskies begin the 2018 season with the premier game of college football’s opening weekend — against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta on Sept. 1 — they have gone even deeper in their prep work for this particular opponent.
Yes, the Auburn Tigers have the Huskies’ attention.
“Our kids,” Chris Petersen said, “they understand who Auburn is. … We’re talking about playing the best of the best right now. So our kids, they know that. I don’t have to say a word about that.”
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This isn’t your typical opening game for the Huskies.
Auburn went 10-4 last season and won the SEC West with a 7-1 league record. The Tigers beat No. 1 Alabama and No. 1 Georgia, the two teams that went on to play in the national championship game.
Auburn has been ranked as high as No. 5 in the various “way too early” national-media rankings this offseason.
The Huskies, 10-3 in 2017, have also been in the top 10 in some of those early 2018 rankings.
Only once has a top-10 Washington team opened a season against a top-10 opponent. That was in 1962, when the No. 10 Huskies hosted No. 7 Purdue at Husky Stadium; the game ended in a 7-7 tie.
Auburn returns six starters on offense, including junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Tigers must replace their leading rusher from 2017, Kerryon Johnson, and they lost two receivers — Eli Stove and Will Hastings — to torn ACLs during the spring.
The Tigers’ defense ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense (18.5 points per game) last fall and is again expected to be one of the best in the SEC next season. Tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell return to anchor a stout defensive line.
UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said he’s expected a bowl-game atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 1. (Kickoff time and broadcast details have yet to be announced.)
“Every game we want to win,” Lake said, “but this for sure is going to (attract) a lot more eyeballs. It’s going to be on a national scene against probably a top-five opponent, a team that beat both of the teams that were in the national championship last year. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, and I know the guys are excited.
“This is why you come to Washington — to play big games like this.”
It’s a big game not only for the Huskies and their chances of returning to the College Football Playoff, but the outcome will have ramifications for the Pac-12 at large. The Pac-12 went 1-8 in bowl games last season — including UW’s 35-28 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl — to finish with the worst bowl record ever for a Power Five conference.
The Huskies are generally viewed as the favorites to win the Pac-12 this fall. An Auburn victory in Atlanta would, fair or not, give many folks reason to write off anyone from the Pac-12 being a serious national-title contender.
That’s part of the burden the Huskies carry into the matchup.
“I don’t think about that whatsoever,” Lake said. “I think we’re just concentrating on getting our guys prepared to win the game. What we can do to control that is win games. If we win games, then they’ll have to respect us.”