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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: Why the UW Huskies, and not Oregon, are still the class of the Pac-12

Washington Huskies running back Dillon Johnson (7) scores on a 52-yard-run against USC Trojans safety Calen Bullock (7) in the second quarter at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum November 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.  (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – There is a word that can spoil the spirits of even the bubbliest of Huskies fans. Six letters, three syllables, one giant mood-shifter.

Oregon.

That football program in Eugene has been popping up a lot lately as it relates to Washington, and not in the most complimentary of fashions. The theme is basically this: Yes, the Dawgs beat the Ducks 36-33 in mid-October at Husky Stadium, but they were not the better team. It took three UW stops on fourth-and-3, plus a missed 43-yard field-goal attempt for the Huskies to triumph on their home field.

Add that No. 6 Oregon (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) has steamrolled nearly all of its other opponents, and that No. 5 Washington (9-0, 6-0) can’t even win comfortably against Arizona State (1-5 in conference) or Stanford (2-5 in conference), and it’s clear who the superior team is, right?

That’s essentially what you’re hearing from a couple of Pac-12 aficionados, at least.

First, there is the San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner, whose column appears regularly in the Seattle Times and Spokesman-Review. Wilner put Oregon atop his Pac-12 power rankings this week. Discussing his rationale on X, he said “The case for UW: three-point head-to-head win at home decided on a missed FG. The case for Oregon: everything else over the past two months.”

And then there was former Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who wrote on his Substack: “The lone UO loss this season came on the road at Washington by three points. It was a game the Ducks win nine out of 10 times.”

A couple of things: Yeah, I do think Oregon would be the betting favorite if it played Washington at a neutral site. Maybe by as many as five points. But Washington isn’t some pushover hanging on for dear life each week. If it is 13-0 on Dec. 1 and heading for the CFP, it should come to the shock of nobody.

Let’s start by looking back at that Oct. 14 meeting with the Ducks. We know about the two fourth-and-3s in which Oregon coach Dan Lanning passed up an easy field-goal attempt in pursuit of a touchdown, and then the third one near the end of the game in which a punt likely would have forced the Huskies to march at least 80 yards (90?) to win the game.

But Washington made legitimate stops on all three failed conversion attempts – not to mention an assortment of quality defensive plays to force the fourth downs in the first place.

Sometimes a team gets lucky because the opposing quarterback throws a boneheaded pick-six or a returner muffs a punt. That Oregon game in October didn’t feature such gifts. Moreover, Washington a) led 28-17 at one point in the second half, and b) was stuffed three consecutive times after having the ball on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Maybe Oregon does convert one of those crucial fourth downs in most games. But Washington almost certainly scores from the goal line in most games.

In short: The Huskies more than earned that victory, could have won by more and maybe, just maybe, were simply the better team that Saturday.

Of course, they haven’t looked like the better team on most other Saturdays. The Ducks beat Stanford 42-6 in Palo Alto, whereas Washington beat the Cardinal 42-33 on the road – where it benefited from a godsend of a dropped pass.

And though there haven’t been too many mutual opponents (both teams blew out Cal), Oregon’s 35-6 win over 13th-ranked Utah looks a hell of a lot more impressive than Washington’s 15-7 win over ASU.

Perhaps this speculation isn’t as meaningful as it would have been in years past, when only Washington or Oregon could have reached the Pac-12 title game. Should Oregon win out, and Washington finish the regular season undefeated or with one loss, these teams will meet in Las Vegas – where a College Football Playoff berth likely will be on the line.

But the Ducks’ dominance over the past couple of months shouldn’t result in folks crowning them prematurely. Washington is still tops in the Pac-12 – and second in the nation – in yards per play (7.97), and though Oregon is third in the country at 7.74, the Bo Nix-led passing attack doesn’t quite have the same bite as the one Michael Penix Jr. is engineering on Montlake.

To be sure: Oregon has looked spectacular lately. There’s a reason the CFP committee has deemed the Ducks the best one-loss team in the country.

But they aren’t the class of the Pac-12. Not yet. They may be in the Huskies’ league, but this is still UW’s conference.