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Why Washington football fans should root for Utah and … Oregon

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert greets fans after the team beat Washington in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Seattle. Oregon won 35-31. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert greets fans after the team beat Washington in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Seattle. Oregon won 35-31. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It would be wise for Washington football fans to root for Oregon and Utah.

And, no, the above sentence is not an oxymoron, a prank or a practical joke.

It is, naturally, an uncomfortable proposition – especially for the Washington Huskies’ sixth-year head coach.

“I think it’s what you guys have been talking about, or everybody has been talking about: The Pac-12 is this, that, ‘down,’ ” Chris Petersen said during his weekly news conference on Monday. “So if one of our teams gets in (the College Football Playoff), I think that helps us – the league. I don’t necessarily like it, because that’s our direct competitor that’s there. That’s why I’ve always said, ‘I don’t care about those guys. I care about us. Can we get there? What do we need to do?’

“But then when you step back, OK, if you’re not going to (make it to the playoff this season), does it help if one of those teams is in the discussion for it?”

In short: yes. Unequivocally, yes.

And that’s because, since UW cracked the final four in the 2016-17 season, the Pac-12 has been shut out. The conference’s national perception has plummeted, and regional recruits – the lifeblood of Pac-12 programs – have fled east as a result.

“I don’t feel like it’s a Washington problem or a USC problem or even an Oregon problem. This is strictly a Pac-12 problem,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Blair Angulo. “When you don’t have the firepower to really combat that (perception) on the field, when you don’t have the possibilities to play in the College Football Playoff, to be in that national picture, it does limit the ability for coaches to recruit.”

At least, some coaches. For prominent staffs from other regions, the Pac-12’s struggles have presented an invaluable opportunity. Consider that, from 2010 to 2018, 60.6% of the top 20 annual recruits from California (as ranked by the 247Sports composite) eventually signed with a home-state school. And if they did leave, they didn’t go far; 77.8% of those recruits opted to remain in the Pac-12.

But as the conference’s reputation has suffered, recruits have relocated. In 2019, just four (20%) of the top 20 prospects in California signed with in-state schools. Thirteen (65%) signed in the Pac-12 and seven (35%) landed elsewhere. And thus far in 2020, the decline has been even more dramatic. Thirteen of the top 20 prospects in the state of California are currently committed, and eight (61.5%) are set to leave the Pac-12. Only one is committed to a California program – and it’s Stanford, not USC. The top five committed recruits are headed to – in order – Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State.

In the Pac-12’s current recruiting climate, California is the most pressing problem.

But it isn’t the only problem.

“It’s been flipped upside down completely,” Angulo said. “You look at even Hawaii, where it was a state that Washington has had a lot of success in the last couple years. Well, the top three guys in the state right now are headed to the Midwest. The top guy (linebacker Jordan Botelho) is going to Notre Dame. The No. 2 guy (linebacker Nick Herbig) is going to Wisconsin. The No. 3 guy (wide receiver Roman Wilson) is going to Michigan.

“You look at Nevada. The top guy (Darnell Washington) wants to play his football in the South. He’s a five-star tight end. You look at Utah, and one of the top defensive lineman (Van Fillinger) is going to go play at Texas. Arizona, I think six of the top 10 are going to leave the area and they want to play for Ohio State and Texas and LSU and all these schools.”

Of course, that isn’t to say that the Pac-12 can’t recruit. Washington’s 2020 class is currently ranked 14th nationally, and Oregon (15) and Stanford (22) are also situated in the top 25. But the top 13 features six programs from the SEC, three from the Big Ten, two from the Big 12, one from the ACC and one independent. There’s no Pac-12 presence.

And those West Coast defections are a particularly damning reason why.

“That’s what everybody from the outside keeps telling all these kids morning, noon and night. ‘You need to come to this conference,’ and all that,” Petersen said. “That’s just recruiting. There’s more to it than just that. Can you come here and play big-time football? Can you play on a national stage? Are you going to get a world-class education? Are you going to get treated a certain way? Are you going to play in your backyard, for the most part?

“There’s so much more to it than … it’s recruiting mumbo-jumbo, is all it is. You know it and I know it. Unfortunately the kids go through it for the first time, so it’s like, ‘Yeah, I can’t stay here! I’ve got to get out of here!’ No, you don’t.”

Which is why Washington fans might want 9-1 Oregon or 9-1 Utah – which are ranked Nos. 6 and 7 in the most recent CFP rankings, respectively – to leapfrog Alabama and Georgia … and maybe help legitimize the Pac-12 along the way.

“Obviously, if you’re a Pac-12 coach right now, you do kind of root for Oregon or Utah to make a splash and reignite the interest in the conference and the ability for the conference to have some national respect,” Angulo said. “Even though, if you’re a rival of Oregon or Utah, you’d rather them not win, (if they lose) then you’re back at square one and the conference isn’t getting as much attention and some recruits won’t really look at it, because they (think they) won’t play in those big-time games.”

At 6-4, Washington isn’t sniffing any conference championships this season. Oregon closes its regular season with Arizona State and Oregon State. Utah finishes with Arizona and Colorado. If both win out, as they should, the Pac-12 championship game could help solidify a College Football Playoff appearance for the winner.

So, with that said – gulp – go Ducks? Go Utes?

For Washington football fans, the enemy of their enemy … might be an even bigger enemy.

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