Washington's opener vs. Auburn carries added weight as Pac-12 looks to make a statement

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Chris Petersen doesn't want your pity -- or your analysis or opinion for that matter.

Washington's coach senses what a large portion of the Pac-12 has already picked up on: The Huskies' season opener against Auburn in Atlanta just might be the conference's game of the year.

Petersen doesn't necessarily agree, mind you. But given the Pac-12's soiled reputation, let's just say it would be in the league's best interest the Huskies fly across the nation and smack the Tigers in the grill in the heart of SEC country.

"I knew this would happen," Petersen said at Pac-12 Media Day. "Is there way too much on it? Without question. So if we win the first game and lose the rest, [we're] good?"

The answer to that sarcastic, rhetorical question is, of course, no.

But if there is a statement to be made by the Pac-12, this is it. That statement being: We're still here.

Washington is arguably a prohibitive favorite to win its second Pac-12 title in three years. Scanning the league's list of top nonconference games, there isn't another contest that is likely to feature a pair of top 10 teams.

Both the Tigers and Huskies are likely to start out ranked there.

Win and Washington looks good enough to run the table. It's that good with the return of 15 starters. Petersen has established himself as perhaps the league's best coach. The nation's fourth-winningest active coach (129-29) is 37-17 in four seasons with the Huskies.

Lose and Washington can't afford another defeat.

Being charitable, there would be only four other opponents on the schedule that project to be ranked -- Utah, Oregon, Stanford and Washington State.

A discriminatory College Football Playoff Selection Committee could decide to turn up its nose at the Huskies. Worse, a two-loss team has never made the CFP.

"[If] we lose, I'm not really thinking, 'At least we had a Pac-12 logo on our shirt,'" Huskies quarterback Jake Browning said. "I don't think there is any saving face in losing by saying, 'Oh, at least we represented the conference.'"

On college football's opening weekend, there isn't a clear-cut No. 1 game. There are a lot of good games. Michigan goes to Notre Dame. Alabama opens against Louisville.

Washington travels to Atlanta for a game that was arranged right here three years ago at Pac-12 Media Day. Gary Stokan, president of the Peach Bowl, approached Petersen about the Huskies appearing in his annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

Auburn will be playing its third consecutive game in Atlanta's Mercedes Benz Stadium (SEC Championship Game, Peach Bowl, Washington). The Huskies may be playing for their playoff lives in Week 1.

Why not? The Pac-10/12 hasn't won a national championship in 14 years. It hasn't been to the College Football Playoff in two years (Washington 2016 semifinal).

The league's bowl record (1-8) was the worst by a Power Five conference in history.

In the knee-jerk reaction time of college football, that qualifies as the Pac-12 being out of sight, out of mind. Take a look at Washington's schedule. The Huskies might be playing their toughest game before Labor Day.

"It's going to be the whole body of work," Petersen countered. "It's going to be the league, how they do in the bowls? I mean, I know everybody wants to put it all about this one thing -- the Pac-12 is either good or not -- on one game. That's totally unrealistic. I don't look at it like that."

Petersen then went until his struggle with the right balance of schedule. There isn't a hard and fast rule that Pac-12 teams play a Power Five opponent in the nonconference. But they might not have to. USC and UCLA are two of the three teams in the country (Notre Dame is the other) that have never played an FCS opponent in nonconference action.

The league has nothing to be ashamed of in this regard. USC and Texas finish a home-and-home this year. Michigan State plays at Arizona State on Sept. 8. Oregon faces Auburn in 2019 and Ohio State in 2020.

For a struggling Pac-12, it has come down to just winning the right games.Washington lost two of its last four taking the shine off a 10-3 season. Pac-12 champion USC was hardly a conversation piece at 11-2 going into the CFP.

"A lot of the SEC is: 'My players are better than your players, so we're going to beat you,'" Browning said. "The Pac-12 is, 'Well, we run this weird offense.' You're going to go play against Mike Leach, who is going to throw the ball 100 times. Then you're going to go play Stanford, who is going to snap the ball within 5 seconds [of the play clock expiring] every single time.

"I'm kind of sick of hearing anything that's not focused on this year."

Browning's coach is right behind him.

"We have so much football to play," Petersen said. "It's a big game; there is no question. Really, the way I see it is we have very little margin for error. But it's the first game against a good team."

One that Washington better win -- for the sake of the Huskies and the conference. Sorry, but it's that big.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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