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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chris Petersen braces Huskies for ultimate matchup against Alabama

Washington coach Chris Petersen holds the trophy after Washington's 41-10 win over Colorado in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday in Santa Clara, Calif. For their reward, the Huskies take on Alabama on New Year’s Eve in the national semifinals. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
By Christian Caple Tacoma News Tribune

SEATTLE – Here is Chris Petersen, stand-up comedian.

Was the Washington Huskies coach nervous as he watched Sunday’s College Football Playoff selection show?

“It was a little nerve-racking. I think you guys drew it out as long as you possibly could,” Petersen said during a live interview on ESPN, before jokingly chiding the person in charge of arranging the network’s graphics.

When ESPN’s breathless speculation finally ended and the rankings were unveiled, there was news both good and bad – but mostly good – for Petersen’s Huskies: They were indeed included in the playoff field, seeded No. 4 after beating Colorado 41-10 in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game.

Their reward: a Dec. 31 national semifinal game in Atlanta against No. 1 Alabama (13-0), college football’s premier juggernaut and the prohibitive favorite to win this year’s national title.

This, too, inspired humor from UW’s coach.

“Fortunately, the Seahawks are here in town,” Petersen cracked. “Maybe they’ll scrimmage us to get us ready for those guys.”

Hard to blame Petersen for being in a good mood in spite of the challenge ahead. Washington is one of only four teams still competing for a national championship, one year removed from needing a victory in its 2015 season finale just to qualify for a bowl game.

UW’s game against Alabama – the Peach Bowl, officially – will kickoff at noon PST on Dec. 31 at the Georgia Dome. No. 2 Clemson (12-1) will face No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) in the other semifinal – the Fiesta Bowl – which will be played at 4 p.m. on Dec. 31 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

The winners will play each other in the national championship game Jan. 9 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Washington is 0-4 all-time against Alabama, most recently losing 28-6 in the 1986 Sun Bowl.

The Huskies (12-1) were ranked No. 4 entering Friday’s league title game, and seemingly clinched their spot in the playoff with a 31-point victory over eighth-ranked Colorado. But then-No. 7 Penn State muddied the playoff picture with a 38-31 victory over then-No. 6 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Debate raged, mostly among ESPN personalities, about whether the Nittany Lions might jump ahead of Washington in the final ranking. But they did not, instead landing at No. 5. Penn State will face No. 9 USC in the Rose Bowl.

After discussing the merits of the two teams until 1:30 a.m. Sunday, CFP committee chair Kirby Hocutt said, the No. 4 spot went to UW because “the selection committee believes they are a better football team when compared to Penn State.”

Hocutt also indicated that if UW’s nonconference opponents – Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State – hadn’t been so weak, picking between Washington and Penn State would not have been nearly as difficult.

On a teleconference Sunday afternoon, both Petersen and Alabama coach Nick Saban said they hadn’t seen much of the other this season, though they exchanged customary platitudes of respect and admiration.

“Coach Petersen has done a fantastic job of developing this team to be one of the best teams in the country,” Saban said.

For the first time in 25 years, the Huskies are a bona fide national-championship contender.

“We couldn’t be more pleased. And I mean that,” Petersen said. “That’s an obvious statement, but I know how hard it is to get where we are in terms of how well you’ve got to play, and our kids have played really, really well. You’ve got to have luck along the way and have a lot of things – the ball (has to) bounce your way. So we’re just really thankful and grateful for this opportunity.”