- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Annoying people often say that "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." Part of what makes that particular bromide so grating is it is mostly true and typically is snarked at an individual who is trying to find solace after, yes, coming close but falling short of some sort of success.
Close doesn't matter in college football. We know this. Oregon's 57-16 bludgeoning of Colorado shows up in the record book just like Stanford's 31-28 nipping of Washington. The Ducks and Cardinal get a W. The Buffaloes and Huskies get an L.
Ducks fans, by the way, also know this. Even though Oregon lost the 2010 national title game to unbeaten SEC champion Auburn by a field goal on the last play, that game is often held up by SEC adherents as an example of why the Ducks don't belong in the discussion with the SEC elite.
We get it. There are no moral victories. You win and celebrate. You lose and go home and sulk. Washington, Tennessee and Northwestern are fully aware they weren't playing horseshoes when they lost in heartbreaking fashion last weekend to top-10 teams.
Maybe close does count, particularly if it is then supported by the body of a season's work.
Take the Huskies. They jumped to an impressive 4-0 start and rose to No. 15 in the AP poll. Yet their loss at Stanford is the best evidence so far this season that Washington is a legitimate top-25 team -- or better. That's why the Huskies slipped only one spot in both polls.
Everyone knows Stanford is good. No smart person doubts the Cardinal, who have entrenched themselves as a top-10 program. Yet the Huskies outgained Stanford 489 yards to 279 with a 30-14 advantage in first downs. The Huskies even ran the ball fairly well against perhaps the nation's best front seven, with Bishop Sankey rushing for 125 yards on 27 carries (4.6 yards per rush) and two scores.
You could make an argument that it was the Huskies' best performance on the road against a top-10 team since losing 26-20 at No. 3 USC in 2006.
Yes, Washington beat then-No. 8 Stanford the year before and outgained the Cardinal in that game, too. But that UW team already had been unmasked 41-3 on the road at LSU. The three consecutive losses that followed also helped quash any residual euphoria. And that was Stanford pre-Kevin Hogan, who has yet to lose in 10 starts at QB.
Further, Huskies fans know exactly what happened after the win over Stanford last year. Washington went to Oregon and got clobbered 52-21, the Huskies' -- all together now -- ninth consecutive loss to the hated Ducks by at least 17 points.
The final 31-point margin wasn't indicative of how complete the butt-kicking was, either. It was 21-0 after one quarter and 35-7 at halftime. The Huskies scored a TD with 32 seconds left in the game.
Guess who's coming to visit Husky Stadium on Saturday? That's right, Oregon, which is again ranked No. 2.
The line opened at 10 points and perked up to 14. Pro gamblers obviously don't think this one is going to be terribly close.
Now, there isn't anyone closely associated with the Washington program, most particularly players and coaches, who will admit to entertaining the idea that close matters this weekend. No, it's only about winning. That's as it should be inside the Huskies' locker room. And this team -- coach Steve Sarkisian's best squad in five seasons -- has a legitimate shot to win, without question.
But close does matter this weekend, for a variety of reasons.
For one -- typing for Huskies fans right now -- wouldn't there be some consolation in ending the streak of blowout losses? After a, say, 39-30 defeat, Huskies fans would at least know they wouldn't have to read this: "10th consecutive loss to the hated Ducks by at least 17 points."
Second, a nine-point defeat probably wouldn't send the Huskies tumbling in the national rankings. Losing consecutive games to top-five teams in highly competitive fashion, in fact, might reinforce a top-20 ranking.
Close starts do truly matter when you bring in the proverbial "big picture." Let's entertain an extreme hypothetical: Washington finishes 11-2, winning a bowl game, with its only blemishes being close losses to the national and Rose Bowl champions. Welcome back to the top 10, Huskies. Think you can build on that in recruiting?
Even at 10-3 or 9-4, a competitive game against the Ducks would matter when reviewing the totality of the season. The Huskies would enter the offseason knowing they were closing the gap between themselves and the Pac-12's reigning superpowers.
Of course, close is irrelevant if it is followed by a close loss at Arizona State. And by close losses to UCLA and Oregon State. And close won't matter if the final record is 8-5 or, heaven forbid, a fourth consecutive 7-6 finish.
Close has value only if it becomes a springboard, if it reveals the Huskies as not yet being a top-5 team but also suggests their potentially being a top-10 or top-15 one. It's what the Huskies do with that strong midseason suggestion.
This, of course, can apply to all the Pac-12 teams chasing Oregon and Stanford. UCLA plays both and is in a similar situation to the Huskies, trying to move up the conference and national pecking order. It also holds true for the other eight conference teams, though from various vantage points.
Oregon and Stanford have been carrying the Pac-12 flag on the elite level for four years now. No other conference team has put up a sustained and legitimate challenge during that span.
Know what someone needs to do to potentially eclipse those guys? First, get close.