Washington running back Myles Gaskin got the sense his team was primed to cross the bridge between average and superior a year ago, after the Huskies won the Heart of Dallas Bowl to finish 7-6.
“We kind of stumbled through last year,” Gaskin said after the Huskies completed practice Saturday. “It was a good feeling to win that last bowl game, but we knew we didn’t belong there. We wanted to play for something big.”
Not unlike one of those Twilight Zone plots that finds a character’s most fervent wish granted — only to discover the pitfalls of wishes granted — Washington got a Peach Bowl berth against No. 1 Alabama. It’s a daunting assignment complicated by the fact the Peach Bowl is scheduled for Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, which the Crimson Tide have come to regard as a second home.
As Washington prepares for its first football game in Atlanta, Alabama has fresh memories of the city regarded as the Hub of the South. Two weeks ago, the Tide clinched the Southeastern Conference championship game in the Georgia Dome, where it is 9-2 overall.
Although both schools were allotted 13,000 tickets for the New Year’s Eve semifinal, Aabama will enjoy a distinct home-field advantage. Coach Nick Saban is a disciple of routine, and returning to Atlanta gives his players the chance to stay in the same hotel and eat in the same restaurants.
More ’Bama alumni are based in Atlanta than any other city, a reality Saban noted when he was named the 2014 Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year. The award ceremony traditionally is held on the campus of the winning coach, but Saban got permission from the Dodd committee to accept the trophy in Atlanta.
Gaskin is no stranger to the place — he’s made several visits there to see his brother, an Atlanta resident — but it’s reasonable to presume most of his teammates are awaiting uncharted territory.
Everybody else en route to the Peach Bowl from Sea-Tac, meanwhile, should be prepared for delicious food served with warm smiles, dance clubs that give last calls closer to dawn than midnight, and a sea of red in the Georgia Dome.
“This is pretty much a home game for them, because it’s a lot closer for them than it is for us,” said quarterback Jake Browning. “But we’ve played a lot of road games up till now. We’ll be ready.”
Browning assured that noise — specifically, the noise of tens of thousands of spectators imploring the nation’s best defense to put the Huskies away — won’t pose a problem. Practices are being held in the Dempsey Center, where the indoor sound system can replicate a loud environment.
“And we’ve played in some loud environments,” he said. “It’s gonna be loud, but it’ll be a cool environment. I’m excited to play in it.”
The quarterback knows a bit about the Crimson Tide. Alabama recruited him when he was setting passing records at Folsom High in California — he talked with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and briefly with Saban — but Browning wanted to stay on the West Coast and Washington had made an offer.
Browning’s former high-school teammate, offensive tackle Jonah Williams, went another direction. A five-star recruit, Williams accepted a scholarship to Alabama, where the freshman has thrived as a starter.
“I talk to him here and there,” said Browning. “He’s not a guy who’s gonna talk any trash to me and I’m not gonna say anything to him.”
Browning plans on exchanging some pleasantries with his buddy during warmups, and then it’s game on.
“Hopefully,” Browning said, “he misses every block and stays healthy.”
Because we’re talking about football, the notion of staying healthy is an uncertainty. Because we’re talking about Alabama football, the notion of an offensive tackle missing even one block is an absurdity.
But the Huskies wanted to play for something bigger than the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and they’re playing for something bigger: The chance to dethrone the defending national champions.
“All the guys that left after last season told us, ‘this is on your shoulders, now we’re handing it off to you,’ ” said Gaskin. “I feel like we took responsibility, and this is where we are now.”
On New Year’s Eve, the Huskies will take the field for the final college game played under the Georgia Dome roof. A new stadium, set to open in 2017, is under construction next door.
Mercedes-Benz has purchased the naming rights, but if Nick Saban has his way — and when doesn’t he? — Alabama will own it.