Sweet glory: Washington cruises into College Football Playoff without controversy, earns rematch with Texas in Sugar Bowl

The No. 2 Washington Huskies secure a spot in the College Football Playoff, carrying the hopes of the Pac-12 for a shot at redemption and a national title. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – This college football season brought an unusually high level of commotion.

From conference realignment that spelled the end of this version of the Pac-12 Conference to the constant discussion about how the factors that decide the College Football Playoff Top 4 should be prioritized, it was a season of chaos.

Fittingly, the final College Football Playoff rankings of the four-team playoff era came down to the results of the conference championships to decide which four teams will compete for the national championship. And just as fittingly, there was controversy on selection day.

Big Ten conference champion Michigan beat out Washington for the top spot, while Texas and Alabama rounded out the playoff under intense criticism.

Florida State, despite defeating Louisville for the ACC title with its third-string quarterback, was left on the outside looking in – the first undefeated Power Five conference team left out during the playoff era.

While teams like the Seminoles and Crimson Tide were sweating out their playoff fate Sunday morning, the Washington Huskies sat comfortably, waiting to see who would join them and the Michigan Wolverines in the playoff.

Washington (13-0, 9-0 Pac-12) earned its spot at No. 2 in the CFP rankings after winning the Pac-12 Championship game Friday in Las Vegas. The Huskies’ 34-31 win over the Oregon Ducks all but solidified their spot in the playoff after being ranked at No. 3 the week prior.

As a result, there was no watch party for the Huskies on Sunday morning, as coach Kalen DeBoer said the team didn’t stress about whether or not they would make the playoff.

“We knew we needed to win each and every game,” DeBoer told ESPN Sunday, later adding that the Huskies expected to be in contention for a title.

This marks the second time in program history that Washington has made the College Football Playoff, with its only previous appearance being in 2016. The Huskies entered as the No. 4 team after defeating Colorado 41-10 in the Pac-12 title game that season, but lost to No. 1 Alabama 24-7 in the semifinal.

Washington won’t just be playing for its reputation, but for the entire “Conference of Champions.” The Pac-12 has struggled to have success in the playoff over the last decade, but the Huskies can send the conference out in glory.

Washington’s selection marks the third time in 10 years that a Pac-12 team has been a part of the playoff, and the first time since its last run seven years ago. The only other team from the conference to make an appearance was Oregon in the first playoff, when it made the championship and lost 42-20 to Ohio State.

Washington’s coaching staff will begin preparations for the playoff this week, and even though the Huskies have not reached the playoff with this coaching staff before, DeBoer brings in a unique knowledge of tournament settings.

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DeBoer was the head coach for Sioux Falls (NCAA DII) from 2005 through 2009, after being the offensive coordinator for the Cougars the previous five seasons. At that time, they competed in the NAIA Football Championship Series, which was a 16-team, single-elimination format.

Sioux Falls made the championship game in the last four seasons with DeBoer at the helm, winning three titles during that span.

The Huskies will attempt to change the outlook on the conference’s success in the playoff against No. 3 Texas in the CFP semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.

“It’s going to be a great battle,” DeBoer said in an interview with ESPN after the rankings were released.

The Texas Longhorns (12-1, 8-1 Big 12) made their way into the playoff by demolishing Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship 49-21. Their key win earlier in the season over No. 4 Alabama earned them a head-to-head advantage over the Crimson Tide, which they held for the entire CFP rankings cycle.

Texas and Alabama’s placement in the final top four marks the first time in CFP history for any team outside of the penultimate top six to make it into the playoff. The Crimson Tide was ranked No. 8 and Texas No. 7 heading into the conference championship weekend.

It has not been too long since Washington and Texas were on the field together, as they played each other in last season’s Valero Alamo Bowl, when the Huskies defeated the Longhorns 27-20. Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers led two air raid offenses in that game, combining for 656 passing yards and three touchdowns.

The rushing attack is what set the Huskies apart, with Texas playing without star running back Bijan Robinson, who sat out to prepare for the NFL draft.

Now almost one year after their matchup in San Antonio, the rematch comes with higher stakes as both teams seek their first CFP wins in their program’s histories – and a shot at the national championship.

It will be familiar territory for Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, who had his first head coaching job at Washington from 2009-13. Sarkisian led the Huskies to a 34-29 record during that span, before leaving to fill USC’s head coaching vacancy after the 2013 season.

Sarkisian has since bounced around to a few different programs, even having a short stint in the NFL as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, but settled in with Texas in 2021.

Arguably the most intriguing discussion heading into the final rankings for the selection committee was how to handle Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC) and Alabama (12-1, 8-0 SEC) with the final spot in the playoff.

The committee ultimately ranked the Crimson Tide at No. 4 after their 27-24 upset win over previous No. 1 Georgia in Saturday’s SEC Championship game, leaving the undefeated Seminoles out of the playoff.

The Seminoles dropped to No. 5, with the committee concluding Florida State is a different team without starting quarterback Jordan Travis, who suffered a season-ending leg injury two weeks ago against North Alabama.

CFP Chairman Boo Corrigan reasoned that this was “somewhat of a unique year,” and Travis’ injury “changes their offense in its entirety.”

There was an uproar from many players, coaches and administrators about the decision, including a devastated Travis who put out a statement shortly after the rankings were released.

“I wish my leg broke earlier in the season so y’all could see this team is much more than the quarterback,” Travis said. “I thought results matter.”

Florida State coach Mike Norvell put out a similar statement, saying he was “disgusted and infuriated with the committee’s decision today,” and asked: “What is the point of playing games?”

“I don’t understand how we are supposed to think this is an acceptable way to evaluate a team,” Norvell said in the statement.

It’s a cruel fate for the Seminols and their fans, as 32 years ago Boo Corrigan’s father, Gene Corrigan, brought FSU into the ACC. But over three decades later, it’s Boo and the rest of the selection committee that kept the Seminoles out of the final four-team playoff.

The Seminoles will begin their preparation for the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 against No. 6 Georgia, with the potential for multiple stars on both sides to sit out of the game to prepare for the NFL draft now that their hopes for a national championship are over.

Oregon fell to No. 8 after its loss to the Huskies on Friday night, with both losses on the season coming from Washington by a combined score of six points.

The Ducks did, however, lock in a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games and will travel to State Farm Stadium in Glendale to face off against No. 23 Liberty in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl. The Conference USA champions qualified for the New Year’s Six as the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion, one place above No. 24 SMU.

Six other Pac-12 teams qualified for bowl season by finishing with at least six wins on the year.

No. 14 Arizona (11-2, 7-2 Pac-12) will travel to the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio to take on No. 12 Oklahoma on Dec. 28, at 7:15 p.m. on ESPN.

No. 20 Oregon State’s bowl game is scheduled against No. 16 Notre Dame in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, which is Dec. 29, at 12 p.m. in El Paso, Texas. This is only the third time the Beavers have played the Fighting Irish, winning both of their previous contests.

The Utes of Utah won’t have to travel too far for their bowl game. They will welcome Northwestern to the Southwest for the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 23, at Allegiant Stadium, with kickoff at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN.

USC will take on Louisville for the first time in program history in the DirecTV Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 27 at 6 PM MST on FOX.

The UCLA Bruins will travel south of LA to SoFi Stadium against Boise State in the L.A. Bowl, which will be played on Dec. 16 at 5:30 PM MST on ABC.

And finally, the Bears of Cal will play in their first bowl game since the 2019 season against the Big 12’s Texas Tech in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl on Dec. 16 in Shreveport, Louisiana, at 7:15 p.m. on ESPN.

In a season that had so much weight and conversation from former and current fans, players and coaches on a national scale, the Huskies now can put their finishing touches on the conference’s legacy.

No matter what happens with the conference after this season, one thing is certain: Washington will finally bring the Pac-12 their long-awaited College Football Playoff glory, or the conference’s legacy will be remembered as the conference of contenders.

College Football Playoff Selection Committee Rankings – Dec. 3, 2023
Michigan (13-0) (+1)
Washington (13-0) (+1)
Texas (12-1) (+4)
Alabama (12-1) (+4)
Florida State (13-0) (-1)
Georgia (12-1) (-5)
Ohio State (11-1) (-1)
Oregon (11-2) (-3)
Missouri (10-2) (-)
Penn State (10-2) (-)
Ole Miss (10-2) (-)
Oklahoma (10-2) (-)
LSU (9-3) (-)
Arizona (9-3) (+1)
Louisville (10-3) (-1)
Notre Dame (9-3) (+1)
Iowa (10-3) (-1)
NC State (9-3) (+1)
Oregon State (8-4) (+1)
Oklahoma State (9-4) (-2)
Tennessee (8-4) (-)
Clemson (8-4) (+1)
Liberty (13-0) (+1)
SMU (11-2) (NR)
Kansas State (8-4) (-)

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.