Oregon and USC have lost three games apiece. Stanford got pounded in its last game 44-6. Utah and Arizona State also fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, and UCLA has stumbled twice.
After getting left out of last year’s College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 could be down to one last hope this season. But here’s the good news for that conference: Chris Petersen’s 5-0 Washington team looks like the real deal.
That was the clear takeaway last week, when Washington pulverized Stanford at Husky Stadium. The 72,000 raucous fans had a lot more to enjoy than the picturesque views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains.
“What a night,” Petersen said. “That truly was the greatest setting in college football.”
Before that battle of two top-10 teams, Washington celebrated the 25th anniversary of its 1991 national championship season. Then the Huskies delivered a performance that would have made Don James proud.
The Huskies made eight sacks, while barely letting Stanford’s potent defense lay a finger on Jake Browning. Myles Gaskin rushed for 100 yards, and Browning showed off his strong, accurate arm. For the season, Browning has 17 touchdown passes, two interceptions and leads all FBS quarterbacks with a 196.3 passer efficiency rating.
Washington climbed to No. 5 in the AP Poll, its highest ranking since it finished No. 3 in 2000 under Rick Neuheisel.
There have been some lean times since then, including the 0-12 finish under Tyrone Willingham eight years ago. But Steve Sarkisian turned around the program, bolstering recruiting, and Petersen has taken it to a new level since arriving from Boise State.
This is Petersen’s third season in Seattle, and the first two were relatively quiet. But a young Huskies team showed its potential at the end of last season, when it won its final three games by an average of 31 points.
Now, Washington might need to run the table to reach the College Football Playoff, but that’s Petersen’s specialty. His Boise State squad went 13-0 in 2006 and 14-0 three years later, winning the Fiesta Bowl both times.
The Pac-12’s nine-game conference grind won’t make it easy. Washington needed overtime to win at Arizona the week before the Stanford game, but the Huskies should be favored to win their final seven games: Oregon (road), Oregon State, Utah (road), Cal (road), USC, Arizona State.
The trip to No. 24 Utah might be the toughest test. And while the Huskies are nine-point favorites heading to Autzen Stadium on Saturday, they’re riding a 12-game losing streak against Oregon.
Petersen works hard to shield his players from these discussions.
“We’re kind of burying our head in the sand,” he said at Monday’s news conference.
The coach took the extreme step of keeping players off limits to the media this week.
“Do I really need to talk about that?” he said. “You guys don’t have enough to talk about and write about? I mean, they’ve got a lot on their plate going on. We’ve got practice and school, and I figured you guys had enough to write about without having to talk to those guys.”
That robbed Browning, Gaskin and the team’s defensive stars from some more national pub. But Petersen isn’t about to let anything distract from beating Oregon, a bitter Washington rival.
The Ducks have lost three consecutive games (to Nebraska, Colorado and Washington State), and now they’ll face a Washington team that ranks in the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
“I think we’ve got a huge, huge challenge in front of us is what I really think,” Petersen said.
But imagine how Washington’s remaining opponents must feel.
BIG TEN SHORT TAKES
• With the Gophers headed to Maryland next week, the Terps might be a bigger challenge than anticipated. Maryland (4-0) is favored to win Saturday at Penn State. The Terps look much improved under first-year coach D.J. Durkin, but the opponents have been some of the weakest in college football: Howard, Florida International, Central Florida and Purdue. The Terps’ visit to Beaver Stadium will be a much better barometer.
• Nebraska lost WR Jordan Westerkamp (back) and TE Cethan Carter (elbow) to injuries at Illinois. The bye week will give them to heal. Coach Mike Riley doesn’t expect either back for Indiana (Oct. 15) but possibly for Purdue (Oct. 22). Both should be closer to full speed by the key two-game stretch at Wisconsin (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 5).
• Indiana gave Kevin Wilson a signature win last week over Michigan State, and the Hoosiers are still 29-point underdogs heading to Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeyes are that good. When will Urban Meyer’s juggernaut get tested again? Probably next week at Wisconsin. The Badgers have a bye week to get ready for that one after last week’s one-touchdown loss to No. 4 Michigan.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (4-0, 1-0): After routing Rutgers 58-0, the Buckeyes have outscored opponents 228-37. Ridiculous.
2. Michigan (5-0, 2-0): Picked Alex Hornibrook three times, including a one-hander for the ages by Jourdan Lewis.
3. Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1): Defense performed well enough to beat Michigan. Hornibrook and the offense? Not so much.
4. Nebraska (5-0, 2-0): Huskers have outscored opponents 78-6 in the fourth quarter, in stark contrast to last year.
5. Maryland (4-0, 1-0): Like Michigan and Ohio State, the Terps rank top 15 nationally in offense and defense.
6. Penn State (3-2, 1-1): Trace McSorley racked up 408 total yards – 335 passing, 73 rushing – against the Gophers.
7. Indiana (3-1, 1-0): Proud holder of both the Old Oaken Bucket (Purdue) and Old Brass Spittoon (Michigan State).
8. Michigan State (2-2, 0-2): Mark Dantonio’s usually disciplined squad racked up 11 penalties in the loss at Indiana.
9. Gophers (3-1, 0-1): They flustered first three opponents with QB pressure but managed zero sacks at Penn State.
10. Northwestern (2-3, 1-1): Some of last year’s defensive tenacity finally showed up in last week’s win over Iowa.
11. Iowa (3-2, 1-1): When the Hawkeyes are good, they own the line of scrimmage. Hasn’t happened of late.
12. Illinois (1-3, 0-1): Played three good quarters against Nebraska, and led 16-10 heading into the fourth.
13. Rutgers (2-3, 0-2): Ohio State outgained the Scarlet Knights 669-116. Rutgers had just 33 yards passing.
14. Purdue (2-2, 0-1): And still, Rutgers has looked like a world-beater this year compared to this sad outfit.