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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Apple Cup deserves seat at big kids’ table – at least for this season

There’s no secret why it’s so vital for the Pac-12 that Washington win this year’s Apple Cup Presented by Black Friday.

It’s the Huskies who are standing at the curb for the limousine to whisk them off to the College Football Playoff. They’re fifth in the current rankings, and waiting for either Ohio State or Michigan to knife the other in the back so they can elbow their way into the featured four – where they will then become something for Alabama to scrape off its cleats.

But that last part doesn’t matter. To the Pac-12, just being at the grownups table and not the kids table come New Year’s Eve does.

In theory, yes, Washington State could get there, too, by offing the Dawgs and whoever the Pac-12 South sends to the league’s championship game. But the Cougars would need to leapfrog 19 schools in the CFP rankings, a high bar even with two marquee wins. Plus, the committee members back east whose heads hit the pillow at the same time most Wazzu games kick off would have to remember that the Cougs even have a football team.

Results on that have been mixed so far.

So, for the time being, to hell with the playoff. One more stab at Pac-12 face-saving can wait.

Let’s turn instead to why it’s so vital for Washington State to win this Apple Cup – which is pretty much every other reason.

Like the big box stores that squeeze Mom and Pop out of business, the playoff – even more so than the BCS, Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance contrivances before it – manages to turn everything else in college football into an afterthought. Hate on the old poll system all you want, but back then Saturday was still the most important day of the week and not the Tuesday the CFP rankings come out.

Among the casualties has been the general reverence and esteem for the rivalry game – which was pretty much the inspiration for college football in the first place.

What games conference realignment didn’t kill altogether – Texas-Texas A&M, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Kansas-Missouri – are now quaint exhibitions. Even Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game is more about the impact it will have on the CFP mensurations.

Once upon a time, it was enough to be just Michigan vs. Ohio State.

The Apple Cup has never been in that league as a national spectacle – not even in these parts, to be honest. Hey, we’re of a different culture, our buy-in to emotional excess conditional. And playing Black Friday games in Pullman with the students gone is never going to help, though this time it appears that the all the tickets are spoken for, at least. Gaining traction, then, in the era of the playoff grail is doubly difficult.

There’s also been the accounting: the Huskies win nearly two-thirds of the time. In the last four decades – the median lifetime of today’s fan – it’s been almost 75 percent. When the Cougs did get something going – winning four of five – it was during the worst stretch of football in Husky history.

It’s hardly a wonder, then, that when you Google the sport’s great rivalries, the various listicles all but ignore the Apple Cup. Second-string rivalries – Michigan-Michigan State, Florida-Florida State – do better. Those notable heavyweights Lafayette and Lehigh get more run.

Even Oregon’s Civil War is always mentioned, though someone needs to explain why.

Never mind that there have been scads of entertaining, well-played Apple Cups, occasionally with enhanced stakes and featuring stars with Heisman or Outland hype. Location and lopsided records too often get in the way.

The Cougs can’t bring the record back to .500 in one game, obviously, but this Apple Cup could serve as a shortcut in time.

This one pairs two teams at the top of their games – an Apple rarity. That’s an important opportunity – there have been others, yes – for the Cougars to be something other than spoiler, or to catch the Huskies immersed in their own woes. Wazzu has made a substantial investment in football – some of it with money they do not yet have – and if the dollars still don’t equal the outlay in Seattle or Eugene, it still needs to be shown that it’s money well-spent.

Moreover, there are two head coaches in place who don’t appear to be going anywhere, who have shown they can sustain programs at a high level and who have national cachet – or in the case of WSU’s Mike Leach, a borderline fascination. As their styles and success elevate their respective programs, their prominence can also elevate the rivalry – even as it seems to pain either one of them to make it more than just the next game.

We’re not looking for the next big-box rivalry. But if Mom and Pop want to expand, that’s OK.

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