PULLMAN – With only three Saturdays left in college football’s regular season, the Washington state schools are peaking at the right time. And both Washington and Washington State have been playing well for a while.
The Cougars and Huskies combined to score 135 points in their respective blowouts of Arizona and California and one of the two schools is guaranteed to represent the Pac-12 North Division in the conference championship game. They are the only two undefeated teams in Pac-12 play.
Given that, their postseason fates are inextricably linked and each team’s games affect the other’s path from here on out. If UW wins its two games before the regular-season ending Apple Cup, the Cougars have a better (albeit slim) chance at participating in the College Football Playoff.
But if the Huskies were to lose to USC and Arizona State, while the Cougars keep winning, WSU will be atop the conference standings and have an easier shot at playing in the Rose Bowl.
Margins of victory matter now, too. Whichever team loses the Apple Cup can still play in the Rose Bowl if it is the Pac-12’s highest-ranked team and the other is selected for the playoff – the Rose Bowl is under no obligation to take the Pac-12 South champion if it does not play well in the conference championship game.
So, it is in UW’s interest for the Cougars to beat up on No. 15 Colorado so the Huskies can remain ranked above the Buffaloes if they do not fare well in the Apple Cup.
Conversely, the Cougars will be rooting for their own interests by cheering on the Huskies in this weekend’s game against USC. WSU is ranked just ahead of the USC right now, and the Trojans would certainly leapfrog WSU in the rankings if they beat the Huskies in Seattle.
Even if both teams win their next two games, the Cougars win the Apple Cup and the Pac-12 championship game, WSU would probably need a little help to sneak into the playoffs. But it would not be impossible to see a WSU team ranked high enough to make the field having won on the road against a top-15 Colorado team (WSU should also root for the Buffs), a top-four UW team and then the Pac-12 South champion.
Again, margins of victory are going to matter for the Cougars, who won their last game by 62 points. But suppose not everything falls into place, and WSU does not play in one of the prestige postseason games.
The Cougars have already matched their conference win total from last season, and are heavy favorites to exceed it by beating California this weekend. That means it is basically certain that the Cougars will play a high-profile bowl game in a southwestern state.
Most projections currently have the Cougars playing in the Alamo Bowl, which is the best Pac-12 affiliated bowl that is not the Rose Bowl. Such a matchup would place the Cougars against the Big 12’s second-best team, probably No. 18 Oklahoma State or No. 20 West Virginia.
If the Alamo Bowl were to pass on the Cougars, the next selection goes to the Holiday Bowl, which expressed interest in WSU last year but ultimately could not pass up the USC vs. Wisconsin matchup. It seems unlikely that the Cougars will end up any lower than the Foster Farms Bowl, which, like the Holiday Bowl, would pit WSU against a Big Ten team.
But those are worst-case scenarios for the Cougars. WSU can still play for a Rose Bowl or perhaps, if the stars align, participate in the four-team College Football Playoff.
They just may have to hold their noses and watch their rivals succeed to do it.
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