The case for Washington to win the College Football Playoff

Tuesday December 20th, 2016

This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

Have you watched sophomore quarterback Jake Browning slice and dice defenses with remarkable efficiency? Seen junior safety Budda Baker deliver a hit? Stared wide-eyed as junior receiver John Ross sidestepped tacklers during a kick return?

If none of these individual highlights have persuaded you that Washington is good enough to win the College Football Playoff, check out the Huskies' footage from Sept. 30. It'll remind you how they demolished Stanford in Seattle that night, particularly in the trenches. Washington proved then that it's ready to play with any team in the country, even—gasp!—undefeated Alabama.

College Football
Familiar situation greets Chris Petersen as underdog Washington preps to face Alabama

Maybe you didn't get to see that 44–6 blowout, so let's recap: Washington and its 10th-ranked defense held the Cardinal and vaunted tailback Christian McCaffrey to 29 rushing yards while piling up eight sacks. (Remember, kids: Defense still wins championships.) Sure, it was an off year in Palo Alto, but Stanford did finish 9–3, and UW scored more points and gave up fewer against the Cardinal than any of their other opponents this year. The Huskies dominated all aspects of the game, which we've seen many times from the nation's No. 4 team, most recently in its 41–10 win over No. 8 Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game.

Browning & Co. know how to win in every way possible: They can blow you out (Stanford), come from behind (Arizona), start slow and finish fast (Cal), get a heroic play in a clutch moment (Utah) and lull you into thinking it'll be a game before blowing you out on your home field (Washington State).

Don't read too much into the 26–13 loss to USC on Nov. 12; it was the perfect storm for an upset. First Washington lost senior defensive end Joe Mathis (foot injury) early in the week, then starting junior middle linebacker Azeem Victor went down in the second quarter. But with the pressure of remaining undefeated gone, the Huskies settled back into destruction mode. They responded to whispers that without Mathis, the pass rush would lose its lethal edge by racking up nine sacks in their final three games.

College Football
The case for Alabama to win the College Football Playoff

Washington scores (No. 4 in the country, at 44.5 points per game), plays great defense (giving up only 316.2 yards per game) and has one of the nation's most dynamic returners in Ross. No offense to Browning, the Pac-12 offensive player of the year, who completed 223 of 353 pass attempts for 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns and had the fifth-highest QB efficiency rating in the country at 176.5, but that award should have gone to his top receiver. A burner with great hands (76 catches for 1,122 yards and 17 touchdowns), Ross missed last season with a left-ACL tear. Every time he caught the ball this year there has been a better than one-in-five chance he'd wind up in the end zone. As a returner, he's brought back 14 kicks for 364 yards, including one touchdown.

But the biggest, baddest and best card UW has to play this postseason? The guy in charge. Third-year coach Chris Petersen showed at Boise State that he excelled in big games, particularly when he has a lot of time to prepare. (Call Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia Tech for details.) Many believed the Huskies were destined to win a national title when they hired Petersen. No one thought it could happen this soon.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.