Jake Browning says this game can’t be any more difficult than four years ago.
A game more difficult than a season opener in SEC country, against the ninth-ranked team, in the University of Washington football team’s first season-opening, top-10 showdown since before it ever won any national championships — and its first ever meeting against Auburn? That’s tough to top.
But Browning thought back to the very first time he put on a UW jersey for a game, when he wasn’t a Heisman Trophy finalist, UW’s career passing touchdowns leader or on the cusp of passing Cody Pickett for most career passing yards at UW.
No, he was the Folsom freshman making his first career start at No. 23 Boise State, in coach Chris Petersen’s first game against his former program.
“I don’t think it gets any harder than when we played Boise State my freshman year,” Browning said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
The senior quarterback has slightly more enlightened expectations this time, with No. 6-ranked UW playing in Atlanta for its 12:30 p.m. Saturday showdown against Auburn at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In fact, Browning is pretty sick and tired of hearing about what all to expect.
“I’m ready to play this game already – just so we don’t have to talk about it, playing a big team, or how big of game this is or anything like that anymore,” Browning said with a noticeable scowl. “Let’s go play already.”
This might be UW’s biggest season opener in school history.
It’s Pac-12 vs. SEC. It’s UW coach Chris Petersen pitted against Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Both teams have star quarterbacks and both teams have dominant defenses.
“We’re just ready,” UW’s senior running back Myles Gaskin said. “As a team, and a lot of the older guys, we’re champing at the bit, myself included, just ready to play. It’s been a long offseason, and I don’t say that in a bad way. But so often you see a little something on Twitter or Instagram about UW vs. Auburn and I was seeing that in February. Now it’s finally here and ready to go.”
The Huskies have opened their season previously in big games. But bigger than this?
There was that 2003 season when the Huskies went to No. 2 Ohio State (lost 28-9), but that was the first game of the Keith Gilbertson era, fresh off the firing of Rick Neuheisel.
In 2001 and 2002, there were games against No. 11 Michigan and then No. 12 Michigan, with both teams ranked in the top 15. But the last time UW opened in a top-10 matchup, it ended in a 7-7 tie in 1962 between No. 10 UW and No. 7 Purdue in Seattle.
What makes Saturday’s matchup with Auburn so special is not only the implications for each school, with UW’s College Football Playoff chances significantly heightened with a win, but the implications for the entire Pac-12.
That’s what happens when the Pac-12 goes 1-8 in bowl games a season ago. Like it or not, the Huskies are representing 11 other universities and the conference’s national image on Saturday.
“This game is ride or die for (Washington),” said David Pollack on ESPN’s “Get Up!”
“It’s boom or bust. If they don’t (win), I don’t think they make the playoff. I think they would be afforded a slip up in the Pac-12 if they win this game. … If they want to guarantee themselves the best chance, they have to win this one.”
UW senior defensive tackle Greg Gaines wouldn’t disagree.
“I mean, it’s literally a top-10 matchup for the first game – it’s going to be really fun,” Gaines said. “I love playing SEC teams, too, and that’s one of the reasons I want to win –to show that the Pac-12 can hang with anyone. That we’re physical and tough. We get to show the world that there’s an East Coast bias. We really want to win.”
It’s such a big matchup that it was presented to Petersen earlier this week that some view the SEC as a dark, magical, mythical place of football glory.
“You trying to scare our guys?” Petersen said with a laugh. “We’re already nervous enough.
“I don’t think it’s anything about mythical or anything like that. I think they play good football (in the SEC). It’s just good football down there. That’s what it is. And I think good football is important in the South. It’s part of their culture and it’s important … and around here, even in Seattle, there are some people who don’t even know we have a football team. That’s just how it is.”
Bush Hamdan would know. UW’s first-year offensive coordinator spent last season coaching quarterbacks for the Atlanta Falcons.
“It was hard to get guys to Falcons games there last year,” Hamdan said. “But if Georgia, Alabama or Auburn were playing there were like 80,000 people there. It’s in their blood.”
UW’s other nonconference opponents are North Dakota and BYU. But without a marquee win like what’s at hand this weekend against Auburn, cleaning up in the Pac-12 might not be enough to make the Huskies one of the four teams that will compete for a national championship.
Make-or-break matchup for UW? Petersen doesn’t believe that.
“It’s one game against a really good team and, win or lose, we got a bunch left after this,” the fifth-year Huskies coach said. “No matter what happens it doesn’t make or break our season. It just doesn’t.”
And Petersen and his staff have handled these showcase games successfully before, at least when he was at Boise State. The then-No. 5-ranked Broncos beat No. 19 Georgia in Atlanta under Petersen to open the 2011 season, and no one will forget Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl madness against Oklahoma in 2006.
But UW? It’s only played five of the current 14 teams in the SEC in its history and is 2-11 in those meetings. Its only wins are against Florida in the 1989 Freedom Bowl and beat Texas A&M long before the Aggies joined the SEC.
“This is one game – it’s us playing Auburn,” Petersen said. “We’re not playing their whole conference. The rest of the Pac-12 has nothing to do with this game. We have to see how this game plays out. So many are looking at the bowl record from last year and they’re putting it all on us like this is a chance that’s got to happen. We don’t see it like that. Nobody else is playing Auburn in our conference except for us. This is about us. It’s about playing one of the top teams in the country and it’s about us and we’ll see what happens.”
This is the 12th time since 1989 that UW has opened against a ranked opponent. The Huskies are 5-7 in those games.
1993: No. 12 Washington 31 vs. No. 15 Stanford, W 31-14
1994: No. 23 Washington at No. 17 USC, L 24-17
1996: Washington at No. 20 Arizona State, L 45-42
1997: No. 4 Washington vs. No. 19 BYU, W 42-20
1998: No. 17 Washington at No. 8 Arizona State, W 42-38
2001: No. 15 Washington vs. No. 11 Michigan, W 23-18
2002: No. 11 Washington at No. 12 Michigan, L 31-29
2003: No. 17 Washington at No. 2 Ohio State, L 28-9
2008: Washington at No. 21 Oregon, L 44-10
2009: Washington vs. No. 11 LSU, L 31-23
2013: Washington vs. No. 19 Boise State, W 38-6
2015: Washington at No. 23 Boise State, L 16-13
2018: No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Auburn, 12:30 p.m. Saturday on ABC (Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta)