An hour after he was done with his sideline-to-sideline body slamming of the USC offense on Saturday, Washington middle linebacker Donald Butler was asked if he considered the possibility the Huskies would be ranked among America’s top 25 teams.
Butler shook his head and smiled. Although national recognition is never unwanted, the idea of inclusion in one of the weekly polls hadn’t occurred to him.
But he sure liked the sound of it.
“When was the last time,” Butler asked, “the UW was ranked?”
The last time was Sept. 18, 2003, a month into what seemed like a promising era – or at least a low-stress, headache-free era absent the chaos surrounding Rick Neuheisel – under new coach Keith Gilbertson. A 3-1 start found the Huskies ranked 18th, thanks to a generous preseason ranking at No. 17.
They went on to lose the following week at UCLA and 15 of 19 games thereafter, costing Gilbertson the job he never really craved and greasing the skids for You Know Who.
In other words, Washington’s No. 24 ranking in the Associated Press poll released Sunday doesn’t necessarily portend sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Still, the simple sight of the Huskies reappearing in the rankings – sandwiched between two traditional powerhouses working on their own revivals, No. 23 Michigan and No. 25 Nebraska – put a perfect stamp on a dream weekend.
“Hopefully, this sends a message of where we are headed and what we are trying to do,” coach Steve Sarkisian said after the Huskies’ first victory over an opponent ranked among the top 5 since the 1994 “Whammy in Miami.”
The message apparently connected more with the writers and broadcasters on the AP panel than with the coaches affiliated with USA Today. They put the Huskies four slots deep in the Also Receiving Votes overflow bin – nothing to sneeze at, but nothing that inspires the “Hey, look at this!” satisfaction of a spot in the Top 25.
It’s remarkable how perceptions and ambitions can change in 24 hours.
At 12:30 Saturday afternoon, the notion of the Huskies reappearing in a national poll was as far-fetched as the Huskies contending for a bowl, or occupying a share of first place in the Pacifc-10 Conference standings.
A spot in the rankings? Relevance in the standings? A bowl game of any kind, anywhere? Who among us had the gall to speak of such goofy aspirations? Who among us dared to draw up a big picture that would find Washington playing meaningful games in late October?
And yet on Sunday afternoon, a day after the Montlake Miracle, those very words – rankings, standings, bowl games – were dominant in any Husky-centric conversation.
Remember when Washington’s schedule looked so fierce and daunting? Remember the imagination it required to envision an 0-12 team in 2008 finishing 2009 with a record better than 3-9? Remember the feeble definition of a successful season?
The definition went something like this: Hang in there. Make it interesting. Have some fun, play with purpose and, oh, be sure and beat Wazzu in the Apple Cup.
Then Erik Folk took the field with three seconds remaining and kicked the 22-yard field goal that beat USC and begat bedlam. During the split second it took for the football split to the uprights, the entire complexion of that fierce and daunting schedule changed.
• At Stanford, Sept. 26. A few days ago, it looked like a winnable game. Now it’s a must-win validation game. I’ll put it in golf terms: Beating USC was the hole-in-one, a rare confluence of good form and good karma. Beating Stanford in Palo Alto saves the par that keeps you on the leader board. A last-second, game-winning field goal against the Cardinal won’t be as romantic – it won’t be the lead story on the ESPN recap next Saturday night – but it will work.
Stanford is a classic trap game. Avoid the trap.
• At Notre Dame, Oct. 3. A few days ago, it simply looked like a trip to the spiritual home of college football. Now it looms as shootout between two Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback: Jake Locker and his Notre Dame counterpart, Jimmy Clausen.
• Oregon at home, Oct. 24. A few days ago, it looked like a grudge match, with the Huskies holding the grudge. Now it’s the stuff of a sellout, the first at Husky Stadium since 2002.
• Washington State at home, Nov. 28. A few days ago, it looked like the one and only “W” the Huskies could expect. Now it figures as the potential “W” that solidifies Washington’s status as a bowl-bound team.
• California at home, Dec. 5. A few days ago, this was quintessential definition of anticlimactic: the dish of cold-turkey leftovers after Thanksgiving weekend. Now it’s possible that a Pac-10 title could be stake.
Sorry, I’m putting the cart before the horse here. A team whose players admitted they didn’t know how to react to a victory last week has no business envisioning a critical game in December, with a BCS bowl bid hanging in the balance.
But I can’t help it. I saw the Huskies defy the prohibitive odds against them on Saturday, and I saw the Huskies ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams on Sunday. I believe anything is possible, and when anything is possible, hey, everything is possible.
First things first. Prepare for Stanford. Save par. Avoid the trap.
AP TOp 25 POLL
The Top 25 teams in The Associated Press college football poll, with first-place votes in parentheses and previous ranking:
1. Florida (55)3-01,4881
2. Texas (2)3-01,4282
3. Alabama (3)3-01,3904
5. Penn St.3-01,2125
8. Boise State3-01,03810
11. Virginia Tech2-185213
12. Southern Cal2-18253
13. Ohio State2-181011
16. Oklahoma St.2-147816
18. Florida St.2-1363–
22. North Carolina3-027124
Others receiving votes: Missouri 115, Georgia Tech 102, Auburn 100, Pittsburgh 91, UCLA 62, Iowa 39, Oregon 30, Texas Tech 19, Notre Dame 16, Utah 12, Clemson 11, Colorado St. 4, Oregon St. 4, So. Florida 1. GOING BOWLING
The Pacific-10 Conference’s scheduled allotment of bowl games (assuming a Pac-10 team not is going the BCS title game):
FirstRose Bowl, Jan. 1
SecondHoliday Bowl, Dec. 30
ThirdSun Bowl, Dec. 31
FourthEmerald Bowl, Dec. 26
FifthLas Vegas Bowl, Dec. 22
SixthPoinsettia Bowl, Dec. 23 HOW LONG?
The last time Washington was ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 poll was Sept. 28, 2003, when the Huskies were No. 18. The Huskies then lost to UCLA, 46-16, to fall to 3-2 and out of the AP poll.