Stanford game will reveal whether Washington finally is 'good enough'

TUCSON, Ariz. -- While Washington's emotions burn red hot when it comes to Oregon, the Ducks no longer occupy the Pac-12 penthouse, a fact made manifest by their losing inside once fearsome Autzen Stadium to an improved and hungry but not yet arrived Colorado squad on Saturday.

It wasn't Oregon that Huskies coach Chris Petersen fingered as superior at Pac-12 media days in July. It was Stanford, the conference champion three out of the past four years and the conference's highest ranked team at present, squarely in the College Football Playoff hunt at No. 7 -- three spots ahead of the No. 10 Huskies.

"We are right there in every single game but one," Petersen said then, when considering why the media was so infatuated with his team, which went only 7-6 in 2015.

"We were not in the Stanford game toward the end. It wasn’t because they were not trying hard enough. We just weren’t good enough."

Just about everyone in college football loves tying a bow around a game, insisting "This moment matters. It is irrevocable," whether that judgment is positive or negative. It feels like we've had several "games of the century" already this season. Such judgments often fall apart within a few weeks.

Yet Stanford's visit to Washington on Friday, in what figures to be a riotous Husky Stadium, is meaningful. A loss won't crush either team's long-term prognosis or even its season. Odds are high that the Pac-12 champion will suffer at least one loss, more than likely two.

The larger meaning would come with a Huskies victory. It would remove the question mark from a preseason deep thought: Is Washington back?

Sure, a lot of long-suffering Huskies fans would rather win at Oregon on Oct. 8 if the next two weekends were an either/or proposition. Twelve consecutive years of getting spanked by an archrival, one whose fan base isn't shy about celebrating itself, is personal, not business.

Stanford is just business. The Cardinal have beaten Washington six times in a row because they were physically superior, most notably at the line of scrimmage. When Petersen volunteered that his team wasn't "good enough" during a 31-14 defeat last year, he underscored his team's physical inferiority, an intimation of falling short in a manhood measure foundational to football (notably failing to note, by the way, that his starting quarterback, Jake Browning, sat out the game with a shoulder injury).

Of course, there are different routes to physical superiority. The Ducks eclipsed the Huskies with speed and newfangled schemes, while Stanford went more for the Hulk Smash! method under slogans of "intellectual brutality" and "character and cruelty."

Further, the physical part is not the entire equation, as the Huskies barely surviving at Arizona in a 35-28 overtime victory Saturday night made clear. The scrappy, injury-riddled Wildcats don't pass the sight test; the Huskies do. Washington has the length and size at the line of scrimmage to match, well, Stanford -- the only Pac-12 team at present to be considered a serious College Football Playoff contender.

Washington's struggles against Arizona might support the popular "overrated" assertion. The Huskies yielded way too many yards rushing, particularly to Wildcats quarterback Brandon Dawkins. Their stunning failures deep in Arizona territory -- four trips inside the Wildcats' 30-yard line yielded zero points -- don't support the notion of a maturing offense with Browning, a true sophomore.

Browning, however, thought exactly the opposite.

“I thought we showed a lot of grit in pushing through that stuff," he said. "After the game, when we’d won, I thought, ‘How many of those did we lose last year?’”

Answer: The Huskies went 1-3 last season in games decided by a touchdown or less.

If we are going to risk drawing any conclusions from the Huskies' 4-0 start against a pillow-soft nonconference schedule and a struggling Arizona squad, it is what Browning said: A program that for more than a decade has been finding ways to throw up on itself at both key and random moments -- particularly on the road -- found a way to win in Tucson.

“We wanted to go through something that was going to be hard," Petersen said. "Teams can get confidence from going through things that are hard.”

Petersen was a sight to see on the sideline on Saturday. His public face is uncolorful, his chilled boredom with reporters giving way to an amusing squirming when he's ready for a press conference to end. During a game, though, he offers up plenty of personality: pacing with his slightly robotic, tiptoe walk; shouting at players who can't possibly hear him through the din of the stadium; doing a hummingbird wings clap in front of his face between plays before bending over, straight-backed, with his hands on his knees to nervously watch the ensuing play.

Earlier in the week, a former Pac-10/Pac-12 coach told me that Washington's rise in the conference and nationally felt inevitable. "They've got the coach," he said. Petersen, marked by his focused, detail-oriented intelligence, is a rare coach whose reputation among his peers is almost greater than it is among the media and fans.

Details? Asked about this week's unusual Friday game, Petersen said, “We’ve planned for about three weeks for this short week.”

The benefit of the doubt Petersen gets is why a sloppy win feels almost more impressive than if the Huskies had rolled over Arizona.

"It's never easy," Petersen remarked as he walked off the field, probably already thinking about Stanford.

Nope. And if the Huskies lose to Stanford and Oregon, the performance at Arizona will be redefined as merely revealing flaws in a flawed team that, as Petersen said in July, was ultimately little more than "the new Pokemon game that no one knows anything about but thinks is really cool."

Just about anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of pop culture now knows the basics of what that Pokemon game is.

On Friday, Washington -- a program that won seven conference titles and one national championship from 1980 to 2000; and one that went winless in 2008 and 7-6 in four of the past six years -- could announce itself as a legitimate Pac-12 and College Football Playoff contender.

Or the Huskies could continue to be not good enough.