Walking around the University of Washington’s campus these days, it’s tough to avoid mentions of the school’s football team. Whether it’s the sea of purple hoodies on Saturday mornings filing toward Montlake or defensive lineman Elijah Qualls garnering students’ attention as he walks Dubs (the Huskies’ live mascot) through Red Square, the signs are there. UW football feels like it’s having a moment.
Undefeated heading into last weekend’s action, this is by far the Huskies’ most successful season in recent memory. But that’s only part of it. The atmosphere around the team is different. The 2016 campaign has already seen the two largest crowds in Husky Stadium history. Fans that attended those contest saw Washington gain, and lose, national prominence.
First came a 44-6 September blowout win over Stanford in a matchup of two top 10 teams, which saw the Huskies stake their claim as the best college football team on the West Coast. As they continued to beat teams by wide margins and rise up national rankings, hopes shifted to a potential bid in the College Football Playoff and a shot at the national championship.
But those playoff dreams hit a bump in the road last Saturday, when the biggest home crowd in program history witnessed the team lose its first game of the season 26-13 to USC. But even in the midst of defeat, something felt different.
Interest in the Huskies has skyrocketed. As a student at the UW, avid sports fan, and the football beat reporter for UW's student newspaper, The Daily, this fall has been quite a wild ride. Students (and even professors) who in the past couldn’t have cared less about the school’s sports teams are bringing the football team up in class. It’s the go-to small talk topic around the U-District. My role behind the scenes affords me a privileged perspective. Suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly, I’m become an authority figure they turn to for info on the squad. So, believe me, this is a special season.
My first Husky football game was a 45-14 win over Georgia State in 2014. Even during the blowout victory, most of the students—myself included—were gone by the start of the second half. On that sunny September day, it seemed that more selfies were taken with students’ backs to the field than cheers directed toward their athletic classmates. After more than a decade of mediocre-to-horrendous play, the Husky fan base was complacent. The student section was nearly nonexistent that year as the team lost all but one of its remaining home games.
For this season's games, even with the Huskies typically up by multiple scores and with the game in hand by halftime, the students remain engaged in the stands. How could they afford not to miss the next great pass by Heisman candidate sophomore quarterback Jake Browning or the next helmet-rattling tackle from junior defensive back Budda Baker? Chances are it’ll be the topic of chatter before class on Monday.
Even after USC had pulled away last Saturday, the stands remained packed until the final whistle. The student section stayed for the entirety of the game, shouting wholehearted cheers and jeers throughout. What’s different this year? What's keeping fans invested? Faith. The students had a belief that their team could actually pull of the comeback, because this season it actually feels possible (if not probable).
And there’s still hope, even after the humbling loss to USC. The Huskies only dropped three spots in the AP rankings (#7), and still have a path to make their way back into the top four and reach the College Football Playoff. There’s still a lot of football to be played across the country—two more weeks of regular season games, followed by the conference championships—and anything could happen. Including UW, three teams ranked in the top four lost just last weekend.
While it’s foolhardy to predict the final outcome of the season, here’s what could happen:
First things first: Washington has to win the rest of its games.
Assuming they take care of business against a mediocre Arizona State team at home this week, attention will turn to the Apple Cup in Pullman against Washington State, which will decide the winner of the Pac-12’s north division. After the Trojans won, the Cougars became the last undefeated team in the conference. An Apple Cup victory would provide a resume-boosting win for the Huskies. That would also set up a Pac-12 Championship Game matchup with the winner of the southern division: Colorado, Utah, or USC. If they win those three games, finishing as a one-loss conference champion, it’d be tough to leave them out of the playoff.
Top-ranked Alabama will likely finish its season undefeated and earn the first spot in the playoff, leaving three spots up for grabs. With other highly-touted teams like Clemson, Michigan, Louisville, and Ohio State also having one loss this season—and two-loss teams like Wisconsin and Oklahoma lurking behind—the Huskies have plenty of competition. But Ohio State and Michigan still have to play each other (with the winner likely facing Wisconsin), and Louisville and Clemson both can’t win the ACC conference title.
In the end, it comes down to what the playoff selection committee decides. They’re the ones who rank these teams and decide their ultimate fates. But, regardless of what that committee declares on December 4, the 2016 UW season has revitalized the culture around the Husky football team and energized its fan base.
And no group of committee members can take that away.