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It's time to get excited about Washington's College Football Playoff potential

SALT LAKE CITY -- Washington's gritty, physical and, yes, fortunate 31-24 win at No. 17 Utah provided clarity to its fans, its critics and to an observing college football nation. The Huskies are no longer a cute or inspiring redemption story, courtesy of coach Chris Petersen's top-secret program-building processes.

When the College Football Playoff rankings come out Tuesday, Washington, at 8-0 and riding an 11-game winning streak, which is second only to Alabama (20), will be ranked in the top four. That will make it real. The Huskies will not be eclipsed if they win their final four regular-season games and the Pac-12 championship game.

Win and you're in, Huskies.

Oh, there will be grumpy fans of the potential one-loss runners-up in the ACC, Big Ten and SEC railing away about their teams' superior merits as the season twists and turns through the final weeks. The subject will be debated in the media, on Twitter and among fans. That's what we do in sports. There will be metrics and stats and trolling, but it will be just noise, a fog of words. The CFP rankings, which will prioritize being an unbeaten Power 5 champion over all other data points, will speak for themselves.

What also will speak, and won't be nearly so much fun as the trolling and countering smugness, is reality. The first CFP rankings mean almost nothing. Go look at the first iterations in the first two seasons of the CFP's existence. Recall the panic in 2014 when three of the top four were SEC teams? To borrow an unoriginal but meaningful phrase from Petersen when he was half-jokingly asked about his enthusiasm over the release of the initial rankings, "We've got a bunch of football left to play."

Yep. A bunch. The chance of Washington and the other three unbeaten teams all entering the bowl season undefeated? Just 2.9 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last time four teams ended the regular season without a loss or tie was in 1951, and that "power" quartet included Ivy League champion Princeton, as well as Tennessee, Michigan State and Maryland.

Maryland! That's INSANE.

In fact, only once since 1995 have even three teams currently in Power 5 conferences reached bowl season unbeaten -- 2004: USC (12-0), Oklahoma (12-0), Auburn (12-0).

Added Petersen about his players thinking about the rankings: "If they are looking at that, they are looking at the wrong stuff."

That's mostly true, but there also is some fuddy-duddy coachspeak to it. The Huskies and their fans -- like the players and fans of other teams in the hunt -- should be enjoying themselves. Winning is fun. Judging from the postgame scene around the Washington locker room, there's no lack of joy around the program, and a large part of that is knowing what being unbeaten entering November means.

"We'll look at [the rankings]," said receiver Dante Pettis, whose 58-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter provided the winning margin against the Utes. "We won't get too caught up in that stuff. But it is kind of cool. You do want to appreciate being in this position because a lot of people would love to be in the spot we're in."

So you appreciate your position. Then you refocus, distilling that "a lot of football left to play" into just one game, the next one.

Up next for Washington: a visit to California on Saturday. The pass-happy, defense-challenged Bears have a future NFL quarterback in Davis Webb. They were good enough to beat Texas, which just knocked off previously unbeaten Baylor, and handed Utah its only other defeat. They will be at home and hungry to make a statement with nothing to lose.

And it's going to be Marshawn Lynch bobblehead night in Memorial Stadium. That should not be lightly dismissed. The Bears won't be there just so they don't get fined.

As for where we are now, Washington's win over Utah and other results this weekend provided further clarity, including the near certainty that it's Huskies or bust if the conference is going to place its champion in the CFP. Every other Pac-12 team is burdened with at least two losses.

Heading for the season's homestretch, things stand like this:

  • If Washington or Washington State wins the rest of its games, it wins the North. If the Huskies win out, they will be in the College Football Playoff.

  • If Utah or Colorado wins out, it wins the South. They meet on the final weekend of the season.

  • USC can win the South if it wins out, which would include taking down the Huskies on Nov. 12, and Utah and Colorado both lose another game.

Obviously, there are other scenarios -- such as wacky chaos -- but these are the most straightforward. You can view the Pac-12 tiebreakers here.

So, as we head to Week 10, five teams have a realistic chance to win the Pac-12.

And one has a chance to win it all.