Winding Narratives for Washington Football

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“Narrative” is one of those buzzwords from the sports lexicon invoked so often that its meaning is sometimes, oftentimes, obscured. It’s one of those words terms often invoked with a sneer, its mere use implying disrespect or, worse, the hint of cries over FAKE NEWS

Narrative in College Footballese has come to be synonymous with consensus in media. Consensus isn’t always or even often wrong, but can sometimes obscure other storylines. The case-study that immediately comes to mind for me is a Thursday night in early October almost three years ago.

Whether it was collective prescience or simply that this was a game running unopposed and located in one of the nation’s two media hubs, a shocking number of national media filled the Coliseum press box for what was supposed to be a lopsided affair. After all, USC was the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, and Washington was selected fourth in its division coming off an 8-6 finish with a roster heavy on NFL talent.

Steve Sarkisian facing his former team, loaded with recruits from Southern California, offered some intrigue. So, too, did the man who replaced Sarkisian — Chris Petersen — finally coaching a game in a venue repeatedly rumored as a potential landing spot during his tenure at Boise State.  Still, had this been a Saturday game rather than a Thursday, I can’t imagine the same contingent of national media braving the traffic for such a seemingly uninspired matchup.

But as an aggressive Washington snuffed out one timid USC drive after another, and especially when Chris Petersen went to his ballyhooed trick-play sheet for a third-quarter touchdown, a narrative began to buzz in realtime.

What if this is the end for Steve Sarkisian? 

If ever there was a physical manifestation of the word “narrative,” at least as it exists in college football’s vocabulary, it was evident in the scurrying throng filing into the Coliseum’s media room to pepper Sarkisian with questions about his future.

It wasn’t without merit. However, I imagine most envisioned a Butch Jones-esque slog to inevitability, USC stumbling to one loss after another with the specter of a coaching search and unsubstantiated reports of his dismissal surfacing every few days until some point in November.

Sarkisian’s brisk walk off the field that night, welcomed into the Coliseum tunnel with a chorus of boos, is now burned into my memory with an eeriness added in hindsight.

But as the national and local press followed Sarkisian’s Fired Coaching Walking gait, another storyline began to unfold.

Chris Petersen came to Washington having won at least 10 games in 7-of-8 seasons at Boise State, including two undefeated finishes that culminated in Fiesta Bowl championships. A commonly asked rhetorical question — or narrative device, if you will — focused on Petersen’s potential with a power-conference program.

An 8-5 finish in Petersen’s last season at Boise State, led into an 8-6 finish his first at Washington. The latter felt especially disappointing, with the Huskies going 9-4 in 2013 and retaining much of the same talent. No one will ever convince me the 2014 Huskies don’t finish 11-3 with Sarkisian at the helm.

At the same time, Petersen rebuilt Washington in a manner more conducive to long-term success.

While most of the media wrote an in-progress eulogy on Sarkisian’s abbreviated USC run, the visitors tent in the Coliseum tunnel buzzed with energy. Washington players made available to the media that night exuded a confident swagger mixed with the underdog hostility that made Petersen’s Boise State teams perennial giant-killers.  

2018 offers an interesting contrast. Washington can no longer accurately claim to be the underdog playing with a chip on its shoulder. Pac-12 media voted the Huskies near-unanimous choice to win the conference championship, and their Week 1 contest against Auburn 

A host of veteran talent explains the lofty expectations set for Washington, including seniors who, as freshmen, played a key role in that tone-setting 2015 season — including the pivotal win Oct. 8 at USC. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, who lined up in the Huskies backfield that night at quarterback and running back, again lead the offense. 

“If I came to Media Day before my freshman year, no one would have been asking me, ‘How are you going to deal with all the expectations,’ because there were none,” Browning said.

The concept of expectations is one of the most common college football narratives, and expectations are not new to Washington in Petersen’s tenure. The “hype train” first gained steam two summers ago, and the Huskies responded well with the program’s first conference championship since 2000. 

Despite splitting first-place votes with USC for most in the Pac-12 a year ago, 2018 marks the first campaign in which Washington is designated as a clear favorite. How the Huskies respond should be one of this season’s most intriguing narratives. 

“The only thing about it for me is I just like to be on a different team than you guys [in the media] are on,” Petersen said. “I’d rather prove you wrong than to prove you right. Now we’re working to prove you right rather than prove you wrong.”

By his own admission, then, there is at least something to that whole giant-killer attitude that buoyed Boise State and powered Washington to its first College Football Playoff. On-field results support the idea that the Huskies prefer playing that role, too. 

Last season’s stumbles offer illuminating examples. Washington went into the November loss at Stanford a touchdown favorite at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook; and while a nail-biting loss to a perennial contender with a Heisman-caliber running back is understandable, an offensively anemic performance at Arizona State isn’t. 

The 13-7 defeat in October at Arizona State did not pair well with the narrative ESPN aggressively pushed about Washington’s “cupcake” schedule.

A 12-1 Pac-12 champion Washington would have been able to weather a road loss to Stanford and gain entry into the Playoff — especially with this year’s peculiar circumstances allowing Alabama in with a weak strength-of-schedule and runner-up finish in its division. 

Losing to Arizona State all but evaporated Washington’s Playoff aspirations before the Dawgs ever visited The Farm. 

I wrote last week that in the weeks leading up to the season-opening Chick-Fil-A Kickoff against Auburn, Washington would not be able to escape the narrative that its performance against the Tigers will dictate national perception of the Pac-12. It’s not fair and it’s not necessarily just, but it’s reality. 

Sure enough, the first suggestions to that end began trickling out over the last few days. 

However, with Vegas tabbing the Huskies as three-point underdogs, and the general attitudes toward the Pac-12 juxtaposed with the SEC, Week 1 looks like exactly the kind of game in which Petersen-coached teams thrive. For as much attention as is paid to Nick Saban and Alabama’s Week 1 prowess — and it’s justified — consider Petersen’s Boise State teams opened the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons with wins over Pac-10 champion Oregon; ACC Championship Game participant Virginia Tech; and SEC Championship Game participant Georgia. 

“You fall into a trap game more when, ‘OK, it’s Week 5,’ and you’re playing a team that hasn’t been winning that many games,” Browning said. 

Instead of Week 1 vs. Auburn, perhaps some otherwise overlooked date on the Huskies’ schedule will shape its championship aspirations. Washington goes to Los Angeles for the first time since that transformative USC game, almost three years to the day, to face Chip Kelly’s new-look UCLA.