STANFORD — Almost every time a Pac-12 challenger has emerged recently to oppose Stanford and Oregon – the winners of the last four conference championships – the Cardinal and Ducks show just how much of a gap there is between them and everybody else.
The latest contender: Washington.
The Huskies have another opportunity to unseat both the next two weeks and vault themselves into the national championship picture for the first time in at least a decade. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) plays at fifth-ranked Stanford (4-0, 2-0) on Saturday night before hosting No. 2 Oregon next week.
The outcomes might not only determine which way Washington’s season goes, they also could decide whether there will be any shuffling in the Pac-12′s North Division or just a continuation of the two-team dominance before the Cardinal and Ducks meet at Stanford Stadium on Nov. 7.
“This team’s really cool,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “It’s not about what might occur down the road, the what-ifs. It’s about what is occurring right now.”
Sarkisian’s squad seemed ready to break the trend when the Huskies handed Stanford its lone conference loss last season, a 17-13 setback in Seattle. Instead, Washington lost to Oregon the following week and finished with a mediocre 7-6 record. Stanford went on to beat the Ducks and win the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl.
Both teams have made massive strides since they last met.
The Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown and often looked lost under quarterback Josh Nunes at Washington last year while they adjusted to life without Andrew Luck. Mobile quarterback Kevin Hogan took over late last season to spark Stanford’s surge and is 9-0 as the starter.
“Schematically, we’re not really different,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Our personnel is different. To have that mobile quarterback is big.”
The Huskies, who allowed Stanford to run for a school-record 446 yards in a 65-21 whipping of Washington in 2011, are a totally different team now.
Washington now has the fourth-best scoring defense in the nation (10.8 points per game) under second-year coordinator Justin Wilcox. And the offense features four elite playmakers — quarterback Keith Price, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, running back Bishop Sankey and wide receiver Kasen Williams — and an improved line.
But Stanford, which has won 12 straight games and 11 in a row at home, will present a far tougher test than Washington has faced this season — and an opportunity to rejoin college football’s heavyweights. The Huskies haven’t started 5-0 since 1992.
“This is right where we want to be, contending for a Pac-12 championship,” Price said. “And this is the first obstacle, one of the best teams in the country.”