Rutgers at home. Idaho at home. Portland State at home.
On a degree-of-difficulty scale, the Washington Huskies 2016 nonconference schedule lingered somewhere between changing a light bulb and riding a bike with training wheels.
Saturday night looms as an actual challenge for the Huskies. Arizona likely will wind up in one of those bowl contests nobody admits to watching, but it’s a Pac-12 opponent, on the road, in a stadium where the UW hasn’t won since 2006.
In other words, the training wheels are off. After three games that didn’t require the Huskies to move the chains in a clutch situation, or make a meaningful defensive stop, or manage the clock, their season finally has advanced to the this-time-it-counts phase.
There are pros and cons about a schedule front-loaded with clearly inferior opponents.
The pros: Starters develop confidence. Injury risks are minimized — it’s difficult to sustain an injury standing on the sideline during the second half of a 41-3 blowout — and third-team substitutes get to participate in plays more sophisticated than a last-snap kneel down.
The cons? Overconfidence. Disengaged fans. The sense — more than a sense, it’s a tangible concern — that the team hasn’t been tested in a way that thickens the skin.
Washington’s last national championship team, in 1991, provided a case study in the benefits of taking on a schedule with a full-speed burst. The Huskies opened at Stanford, which would go on to win its last seven regular-season games and finish No. 22 in the Associated Press rankings.
The surprisingly convincing 42-7 victory established Don James’ team as a legitimate powerhouse, but the next week the Huskies found themselves facing the kind of obstacle-course quandary that defines those who are able to solve it: a Saturday night game at No. 9 Nebraska.
I should point out that this was before there were 58 different cable networks broadcasting college football all the time. In 1991, a night game between two top-10 opponents, televised nationally on ABC, was a very big deal.
Washington trailed at halftime, 14-6. Six quarters into their season, the Huskies were forced to dig deep and survive the ultimate gut check.
They outscored Nebraska, 30-7, in the second half. So stirring was the performance that the crowd gave the visitors a standing ovation as time expired. Ask any alum of the 1991 UW team to share his favorite memories of that championship season and he’ll begin with the second-half comeback against the Cornhuskers.
Steeled by the experience, Washington returned to Seattle and beat Kansas State, 56-3. A 54-0 shutout of Arizona at Husky Stadium the following week preceded a 48-0 shutout of Toledo.
Three games decided by an aggregate score of 158-3, and yet it’s fair to wonder what kind of will the Huskies are able to muster at Nebraska if they open the season, in three easy pieces, at home.
It’s also fair to wonder if a more favorable 1991 schedule — one that replaced Nebraska with, say, Portland State — would’ve denied Washington a share of the national championship. The Huskies and the Miami Hurricanes ran neck and neck until a photo-finish split between the A.P. and the coaches. Absent that early-season road victory over a quality opponent, the UW probably is ranked No. 2 in both polls.
A final thought on the pros and cons of schedules packed with bread crumbs:
I went to college at Missouri. The season opener my freshman year was a home-game victory over the Oregon Ducks, whose quarterback was future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Dan Fouts. The season opener my sort-of senior year (it ended up taking a while) was a road-game victory at Alabama, whose head coach was Bear Bryant.
Between 1972 and 1976, Missouri held its own as it took on the nonconference likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, USC and Ohio State. Out of that potential pit of despair were two bowl-game invitations, one bowl-game victory, and highlights way more indelible than the bowl-game victory.
Next month, I’m going back for homecoming. I’ll reunite with a dozen friends around a big table at a downtown bar, and the over-under time on how long it will take for somebody to bring up the 1972 upset of Notre Dame is 35 seconds.
We’ll reminisce, telling the same stories we shared a few years ago and, fingers crossed, the same stories we’ll share a few years from now.
And then it will be time to leave, game on.
We won’t want to miss the kickoff against Middle Tennessee State.