Once upon a time, the Washington Huskies and Oregon Ducks had one of the best rivalries in college football. It was the most anticipated matchup of the year in the Pacific Northwest, more than the Apple Cup or the Civil War.
All that changed in the last decade as Oregon ascended to a national power while Washington languished as a Pac-10/12 also-ran. The Ducks have won 12 straight in the series, dating back to 2004.
On Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX), however, Washington is ready to flip the script. Maybe for a good while.
The Huskies will invade Autzen Stadium ranked No. 5 (in the AP poll) and as the only remaining unbeaten team in the Pac-12. Fresh off a walloping of Stanford on national TV and they’re now the conference’s best (maybe the only) positioned team to contest for a College Football Playoff spot.
They’ll find an Oregon team in complete disarray, with speculations swirling about the job security of coach Mark Helfrich, who only two years ago took the Ducks to the inaugural CFP title game. But this season the Ducks are 2-3, having been drubbed back-to-back by Colorado and Washington State and giving up 92 points in those two losses.
There might not be a quick short-term fix for Oregon’s sudden decline. The program has had some bright moments, notably under Rich Brooks in the ’90s, Mike Bellotti in the early 2000s and of course, the current run started by Chip Kelly in 2009. But does Oregon have what it takes to sustain success?
Perhaps not. Even in the best of times, Oregon almost never reeled in top talent. Neither Kelly nor Helfrich ever had a top 10 recruiting class. In the past five years, Oregon’s recruiting classes ranked somewhere between 16th and 28th. The Ducks have neglected defense for the most part – and hiring Brady Hoke as the new defensive coordinator this past offseason has failed to arrest the continued defensive slide.
From 2009 to 2014, when the Ducks played for the national title twice (and lost both times), they gave up an average of around 20-24 points per game. That number went up alarmingly last year to an average of 38 and this year they’re at 36 points per through five games.
This is exactly the same reason why Washington has suddenly become a national power again.
While most remember Chris Petersen’s Boise State teams for the statue-of-liberty type of trick plays, his Broncos were able to compete with college football’s big boys even with lesser talent because they wouldn’t get pushed around. When he came to Washington, he brought the same philosophy and now he can do it with better players.
While Washington gave up an average of 28 points per game under Steve Sarkisian from 2009-13, it has become much stingier under Petersen. The Huskies allowed just 19 points per game in 2015 and only 13 per this year. Against Stanford last week, Washington absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in a 44-6 rout.
As a result, the Huskies may very well return to their previous status as the bully on the block. Under the legendary Don James, Washington was a perennial powerhouse, winning six Pac-10 titles, four Rose Bowls and shared the 1991 national championship with Miami. In his 18 seasons in Seattle, James was 15-3 against Oregon.
Washington is poised to end its current 12-game losing streak against the Ducks and start a new era of dominance. This Saturday’s game has the feel of two ships passing each other at night, heading in opposite directions.
Game of the Week
Tennessee at Texas A&M (-7), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Will the cardiac kids of Tennessee finally run out of miracles? After absolutely stealing one from Between the Hedges against Georgia last week, the Vols must take on an SEC foe equally apt at second-half comebacks. This unexpected top 10 showdown between two undefeated teams may very well shake up SEC races in both divisions.
Also keep an eye on
Alabama (-14) at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Nearly every year in the Nick Saban era, the Crimson Tide would lose an SEC game unexpectedly, whether it’s Johnny Football (2012), Kick Six (2013) or back-to-back to Ole Miss (2014-15). The visit to Fayetteville just might be Alabama’s trap game of the year as it will face Tennessee and Texas A&M in the next two weeks. Bret Bielema is in his fourth season at the helm of the Hogs and must prove he can truly compete in the SEC.
Texas vs. Oklahoma (-10.5) at Dallas, noon ET, FS1
Charlie Strong’s seat is red hot after Texas’ back-to-back losses to Cal and Oklahoma State, and as a quick fix he has taken back defensive calls from DC Vance Bedford. With their backs against the wall, the Longhorns just might show up and play their best game of the year as they did last season against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry showdown.
Player to watch
Washington State at Stanford (-7.5), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
For the second year in a row, the Cougars opened the season 2-2, losing the season opener to an FCS team. But just like last year, Washington State didn’t go into the tank, but got better and quickly, thanks to its fearless junior quarterback Luke Falk. Through four games, Falk is averaging over 370 passing yards per game with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Last year, Falk aired it out 61 times for 354 yards in a 30-28 loss to Stanford when WSU missed a field goal at the gun. He is posed to to end Wazzu’s eight-game losing streak to the Cardinal.