By Jon Wilner
The Pac-12’s longest active bowl participation streak, albeit one with a caveat, is in significant peril.
Washington has advanced to the postseason for 10 consecutive non-pandemic years. The last time the Huskies missed a normal bowl season was 2009 — Steve Sarkisian’s first year resurrecting the program from the depths of the Tyrone Willingham collapse.
Since then, the Huskies have been home for the holidays just once, last fall, when they were eligible but couldn’t participate because of COVID. (Of course, every team was eligible last year, which is one reason to apply the caveat: The only bar to clear involved health and wellness.)
But with the midpoint of this semi-normal season approaching, the Huskies are on fragile ground:
— The defense is fairly stout but nothing like the airtight units of 2016 and 2018.
— The offense has fluctuated between nonexistent and faintly respectable.
— Three key players, cornerback Trent McDuffie, edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui and tight end Cade Otton, have missed varying amounts of time.
— The coaching staff has come under severe, and in our view justifiable criticism.
— And the Huskies are 2-3 for the first time in a decade, with bowl math that is becoming increasingly difficult.
Washington must win four of its final seven games to qualify for the postseason. If not for the good fortune of having both Arizona and Colorado on the schedule, the situation would be downright dire.
Then again, any team capable of losing at home to Montana has the potential to struggle against Pac-12 bottom feeders. Also, the Huskies pulled a no-show on their last trip to Boulder (2019) and traditionally struggle in Tucson.
But let’s assume they handle the Wildcats and Buffaloes and have four victories in the bank. They would need to win twice against a lineup of Oregon, Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington State.
We think the Apple Cup dynamics have shifted, partly because of UW’s deterioration, partly because the Cougars no longer deploy an offense (the Air Raid) that’s gift-wrapped for Jimmy Lake’s defensive system.
But for the sake of this exercise, we’ll give the Huskies another Apple Cup. That’s five victories in the bank — they still need one more against a daunting final four. Oregon, ASU, UCLA and Stanford own a combined record of 14-6 and have looked superior to UW this season.
Each member of that quartet has beaten a team with a winning record.
Meanwhile, the Huskies have beaten only Arkansas State (1-4) and Cal (1-4), and they needed overtime to escape the Bears.
In other words, a sweep of Arizona, Colorado and WSU isn’t enough. The Huskies need an upset somewhere, somehow, to keep their streak alive.
To the projections …
Rose Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Team: Oregon (4-1/1-1)
Home games (four): Cal, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon State
Road games (three): UCLA, Washington, Utah
Comment: The Ducks might lose again — they probably will lose again, in fact — but they’ll win enough to secure the division and then make one more big play than their opponent in the conference championship.
Alamo Bowl (vs. Big 12)
Team: Arizona State (4-1/2-0)
Home games (four): Stanford, Washington State, USC, Arizona
Road games (three): Utah, Washington, Oregon State
Comment: The only team standing between ASU and the program’s first division title since 2013 is ASU — consistency of effort, physical and mental discipline, and resolve. Oh, and the NCAA. Don’t forget the NCAA.
Las Vegas Bowl (vs. Big Ten)
Team: Oregon State (4-1/2-0)
Home games (three): Utah, Stanford, ASU
Road games (four): Washington State, Cal, Colorado, Oregon
Comment: Aside from the rivalry game, all of OSU’s toughest matchups are at home. Judging by the student turnout over the weekend, the Reser Stadium advantage could be significant in the stretch run.
Holiday Bowl (vs. ACC)
Team: UCLA (4-1/1-1)
Home games (three): Oregon, Colorado, Cal
Road games (four): Arizona, Washington, Utah, USC
Comment: We’re not yet convinced the Bruins caught a break with their crossover games — they play Oregon and UW and miss OSU and WSU — but the fact that we’re entertaining the possibility is an unexpected twist.
Sun Bowl (vs. ACC)
Team: Stanford (3-2/2-1)
Home games (four): Washington, Utah, Cal, Notre Dame
Road games (three): ASU, Washington State, Oregon State
Comment: Given the current state of affairs in Seattle, Salt Lake City, Berkeley and Pullman, the Cardinal is well positioned for another bowl berth following a four-game stretch that stands as an unqualified success.
LA Bowl (vs. Mountain West)
Team: USC (3-2/2-2)
Home games (four): Utah, Arizona, UCLA, Brigham Young
Road games (three): Notre Dame, ASU, Cal
Comment: Lose to Utah this weekend, and the math turns tricky. The Trojans would need to beat two teams not named Arizona to qualify. Cal? OK. But where’s the other?
ESPN Bowl (Gasparilla, Armed Forces, First Responders)
Team: Utah (2-2/1-0)
Home games (four): ASU, UCLA, Oregon, Colorado
Road games (four): USC, Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona
Comment: The Utes should have higher aspirations. But a trip to the Dallas area for either the Armed Forces or First Responders bowl would be nice in one respect: It’s close to Mesquite, the hometown of Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan.
Team: Washington (2-3/1-1)
Home games (four): UCLA, Oregon, ASU, Washington State
Road games (three): Arizona, Stanford, Colorado
Comment: The Hotline supercomputer ran 10,000 simulations of UW’s postseason scenarios, and each one produced the exact same result: It will all come down to the Apple Cup.
Team: Arizona (0-4/0-1)
Home games (four): UCLA, Washington, Cal, Utah
Road games (four): Colorado, USC, Washington State, ASU
Comment: Simply by not playing, Arizona’s relative position has improved significantly — the Cal and Colorado games look more winnable than they did a week ago.
Team: Cal (1-4/0-2)
Home games (three): Colorado, Oregon State, USC
Road games (four): Oregon, Arizona, Stanford, UCLA
Comment: We would have never guessed the season would be over before November. But if the Bears don’t win two of their next three (at Oregon, vs. Colorado, vs. OSU), that could very well be the case.
Team: Colorado (1-4/0-2)
Home games (three): Arizona, Oregon State, Washington
Road games (four): Cal, Oregon, UCLA, Utah
Comment: If JT Strout had remained healthy and given CU a viable option behind Brendon Lewis, would the season have unfolded differently? It’s unanswerable but worth asking.
Team: Washington State (2-3/1-2)
Home games (four): Oregon State, Stanford, Brigham Young, Arizona
Road games (three): ASU, Oregon, Washington
Comment: Gigantic game this weekend against the Beavers. Win, and WSU’s postseason path widens considerably.