The question lingered until the final game of the 2015 season.
Would the Washington Huskies qualify for a bowl game?
They did, achieving a 6-6 record with a victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup before beating Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, a palatable conclusion to a season defined by near misses and youthful errors.
Things have changed. When the Huskies won their sixth game this season — a 70-21 waxing of Oregon in Eugene this past Saturday — nobody bothered to mention the victory assured UW of bowl eligibility.
That was a given this year for the Huskies (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12), unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in both polls this week.
“I really hadn’t even thought of that, to tell you the truth,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
“We got ourselves in a situation (last year) where we had to win our last three to get that done — that was a real important thing to us last year at that time. So, each year’s a little bit different.”
This year is a lot different. The Huskies were happy last season just to play in a no-name bowl in Dallas the day after Christmas. Now, there is speculation they could go undefeated and qualify for the College Football Playoff, and that speculation is actually reasonable.
Five of Washington’s six victories have come by a winning margin of 35 points or more. The Huskies destroyed Stanford and Oregon in consecutive weeks — by a combined score of 114-27 — and they appear in every way to be the best team in the Pac-12.
There is even talk of Heisman Trophy candidacy for sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, and that, too, is wholly justified: he leads the country in touchdown passes with 23 despite attempting only 144 throws in six games; he leads the country in passing efficiency; and he ranks fourth nationally in yards per attempt (9.8, nearly a first down per throw) and third in completion percentage (72.2). Fox Sports reporter Bruce Feldman ranked Browning No. 2 in this week’s Heisman watch.
For his eight-touchdown performance at Oregon — six passing, two rushing — Browning was voted the Pac-12’s offensive player of the week, the first such honor of his career.
He leads a UW offense that ranks fourth nationally in yards per play and scores nearly 50 points per game. The Huskies rank sixth in scoring defense and ninth in yards per play allowed. They appear to be as complete of a team as any at UW since the early 1990s.
And maybe, per Petersen’s own decree, enough games have been played to properly evaluate UW’s place in the national landscape. During an interview in July, Petersen lamented any preseason hype, joking that UW was the “all-offseason team” and reminded repeatedly that the Huskies had yet to accomplish a thing.
“If people want to talk to us after game six,” Petersen told the News Tribune in July, “when we play three Pac-12 teams — at Arizona, short week on Stanford and then at Oregon — and after that want to make a big deal about things? OK. But until then, why are we talking about this stuff?”
Then is now. So, Petersen was asked Monday, is this the fifth-best team in the country?
“I have no idea what that means,” he replied, reiterating that he was perplexed by the offseason hype and that it’s only halfway through the season.
“But since then, in these six games, our guys have played well,” Petersen said. “And they play hard and they execute at a good level. For people to say this is a good team, that’s completely legit up to this point, for sure.
“Now, rankings and all that, you know how much those are going to change from right now to six weeks from now. We kind of all know that. That’s why it’s like, just stay the course, one game at a time, and see what happens.”
EXTRA POINT: Washington’s Oct. 22 home game against Oregon State will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. and air on the Pac-12 Networks.