We’ll say it, straight talk straight-away: Washington-Auburn is the most significant non-conference game for the Pac-12 since the formation of the College Football Playoff and, arguably, since the onset of the BCS era.
Combine the worst bowl record in major college history with a Week One showdown in SEC country drenched in playoff implications, and you get momentous.
Recent failure plus future opportunity equals a reputation-shaping present.
“The Pac-12’s life is kind of on the line for the season,” said Joel Klatt, the Fox analyst and former Colorado quarterback.
We’ll also say this: The conference has the right coach for the occasion.
Washington’s Chris Petersen has won plenty of big games in his career. He has even won this game, so to speak.
Opening the season in Atlanta against an SEC power? Petersen went there and did exactly that in 2011, leading fifth-ranked Boise State past No. 19 Georgia.
While in Boise, he also slayed No. 14 Oregon to start the 2009 season — Chip Kelly’s first game with the Ducks — and beat No. 13 Virginia Tech in the 2010 opener.
The traits that make Petersen a master in season openers are inseparable from those that make him an elite coach for the other 13 weeks: Consistency of message, attention to detail, accountability, preparation.
It’s just that everything is magnified in Week One: The scrutiny, the uncertainty and potential for mistakes, and the desperate need to stay grounded.
“Chris isn’t going to change anything: His deal is to enjoy the process and understand the right way to do it,’’ said Montana assistant Brent Pease, who was Boise State’s offensive coordinator in 2011.
“It’s building up to the moment. It’s creating situations in practice that will probably come up in the game, so when they do, the kids don’t flinch.
“We looked at the Georgia game as a great opportunity to showcase ourselves. We scouted them and studied them all summer. I’m sure he’s done the same thing with Auburn.”
The 2011 opener, like Saturday’s showdown, carried major postseason implications. The Broncos were a narrow favorite — UW is a slight underdog — and had their own versions of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin in Kellen Moore and Doug Martin. Their defense, like Washington’s, possessed a bevy of future draft picks.
It unfolded in a manner that would seem unlikely Saturday, except for the reality of the precedent: Boise State broke open a close game in the third quarter and rolled to a 35-21 victory.
“We made some adjustments with tempo, turned to some things that were in the game plan but we didn’t use in the first half,” Pease said.
It all tracks closely, save for an added layer of intrigue this week: The ramifications for the Pac-12, for its battered reputation and fragile stature as a major player on the national stage.
The only regular-season game in the playoff era to possess this level of import is Oregon’s 2014 victory over Michigan State, a top-10 showdown in Week Two that sent the Ducks on a path to the semifinals.
But back then, the Pac-12 wasn’t gasping for respect after an epic fail in the postseason.
If the sixth-ranked Huskies lose — and especially if they lose resoundingly — the shockwaves will spread throughout the west. Recovery, not only for UW but any Pac-12 playoff hopeful, will be exceedingly difficult.
“They need to be in the playoff, they can’t miss the playoff again — whoever that team is,’’ Klatt said. “And the hard part is, at the outset, there’s one-and-a-half teams that you can say, ‘Yeah, they can play to that caliber.’
“That produces an amazing amount of pressure on Washington, because I don’t believe they will be able to recover if they lose, from a national narrative standpoint.”
Petersen won this game seven years ago. The Huskies, and the conference, need a repeat.
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