It took 13 weeks, but we finally have clarity on the most significant result of the Pac-12 football season — a result that made little sense at the time and makes zero sense now, that made an enormous impact on the team involved and the conference at large.
It wasn’t Oregon’s blowout loss to Georgia on the first Saturday of September or USC’s one-point loss at Utah in the middle of October or the pulsating duel between the Los Angeles rivals prior to Thanksgiving.
Nope, the most significant game of the season unfolded in relative obscurity on the afternoon of Oct. 8 in the desert: Arizona State 45, Washington 38.
The Huskies (10-2) entered the game as a two-touchdown favorite against an opponent that had just fired its coach and lost four in a row. But they couldn’t stop ASU backup quarterback Trenton Bourguet in a back-and-forth affair.
Washington hasn’t lost since, while Sun Devils haven’t won since — with the exception of a victory over lowly Colorado.
Had the Huskies survived in the desert then, everything would be different now.
Washington would be 11-1, tucked comfortably in the top-10 of the College Football Playoff rankings and headed into the Pac-12 championship game against USC in a duel of one-loss teams.
The winner would be perfectly positioned for a playoff berth as a 12-1 Power Five champion.
Yes, we’re confident Washington would have the resume necessary. Why? Because it would be comparable to what USC has now, and the Trojans are considered a playoff lock if they win this week.
USC’s only loss came on the road to a ranked opponent (Utah).
The Huskies’ only loss would have come on the road to a ranked opponent (UCLA).
USC has three wins over ranked opponents (Oregon State, UCLA and Notre Dame).
The Huskies would have two wins over ranked opponents (Oregon and Oregon State), with a third this weekend if they had beaten USC.
In that scenario, who would be more deserving?
Not the ACC champion, which would have multiple losses.
Probably not Ohio State, which didn’t win its division and was beaten soundly in the game that mattered most.
And perhaps not Alabama or Tennessee, which would have two losses and runner-up finishes.
Could we guarantee that Washington would make the playoff at 12-1? Nope, but the Huskies would have a great chance — if they had beaten Arizona State on a warm October afternoon in what seemed, at the time, like an innocuous affair.
Instead, Washington left Sun Devil Stadium with its second and final loss — the first came at UCLA one week earlier — and is sitting home this week while the Trojans face Utah (9-3), which has no chance to make the playoff.
That’s why UW’s loss in Tempe stands as the most significant: The conference’s other ranked teams all have three losses. Change the one outcome, and they would be 10-2 this week — the playoff would be out of reach even with a victory over the Trojans.
Only Washington is one game away from an alternate reality for itself and the Pac-12.
The Huskies’ other loss, at UCLA, made sense then and now. There is no lingering what-if component.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the seven-point loss as a 14-point favorite on a warm Saturday in the desert changed everything.
That doesn’t diminish what the Huskies have accomplished — they could very well end up in the Rose Bowl — or the outlook for the program under Kalen DeBoer.
But it’s an interesting hypothetical to consider while awaiting bowl selections on Sunday morning. And there are others, as we’ll explore later in the week.
Our latest projections …
College Football Playoff (Peach or Fiesta bowls)
Date: Dec. 31
Comment: Only one Power Five champion with a 12-1 record has not been invited to the playoff: Ohio State in 2018, and the Buckeyes had a blowout loss to an unranked team (Purdue) that year. These Trojans are in much better shape. Win this week, and they’re in.
Rose Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Date: Jan. 2
Comment: Bowl officials will take several factors into account when selecting the Pac-12’s replacement for USC but ultimately want the best matchup. Two-loss Washington is more enticing than four-loss Utah, especially with Ohio State on the other sideline. Granddaddy doesn’t like rematches.
Alamo Bowl (vs. Big 12)
Date: Dec. 29
Comment: At this point in the selection process, things get interesting. The Alamo could pick Utah but wouldn’t be obligated. (The Utes participated three years ago.) Our hunch is bowl officials opt for UCLA, which is a better TV draw and would not be coming off a loss.
Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC)
Date: Dec. 28
Comment: If the Utes aren’t headed to Pasadena or San Antonio, we suspect the Holiday would be keenly interested given the options. Oregon could be available, but how many Ducks fans would make the trip after the disappointing finish?
Las Vegas Bowl (vs. SEC)
Comment: To be clear: This spot could go to Oregon State — we suspect bowl officials will seriously consider the Beavers, who beat Oregon head-to-head and likely would bring more fans. But the TV component plays a role, as well.
Sun Bowl (vs. ACC)
Date: Dec. 30
Team: Oregon State
Comment: A slew of possibilities exist for OSU, which finished 9-3 and will have a CFP ranking next to its name. In order of likely destinations, we give the Sun a slight edge over Las Vegas, with the Holiday running third.
LA Bowl (vs. Mountain West)
Date: Dec. 17
Team: Washington State
Comment: The Cougars are locked into the LA Bowl because of stipulations in the selection process regarding conference record. They finished more than one game behind the other bowl-eligible teams and cannot be selected ahead of them.
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