April 18, 2024

In the final year of the Pac-12, it was not the program with the second-year coach who made the most headlines upon his arrival, the program with a returning Heisman Trophy winner as its quarterback, the program that was among the coveted first two out the door to the Big Ten.

But if you were paying attention entering 2023, it was not going to be too much of a surprise if Kalen DeBoer’s Washington Huskies, led by their own transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr., were going to outperform the half-rate payout the Big Ten had offered them and make a run to the College Football Playoff.

What Lincoln Riley’s USC Trojans lacked in toughness and consistency on both sides of the ball, DeBoer was able to instill after quietly departing Fresno State for Seattle. Week in and week out down the stretch, the Huskies did not often look the part of a dominant champion, squeaking out wins against Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State to make it to 12-0. But they were gritty, making plays when they had to, and their lack of style points set them up as 9-point underdogs in a rematch with Oregon, a team they had already beaten.

The lack of respect may have fueled them in quickly jumping ahead of the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game en route to a 34-31 win. And, sure enough, despite being ranked No. 2 with a 13-0 record, the Huskies will be able to draw from disrespect once again in the Sugar Bowl, where they are four-point underdogs to the No. 3 Texas Longhorns.

Will this College Football Playoff semifinal serve as one more reminder not to doubt DeBoer’s team, or will it finally be the game that a flashier outfit can meet Washington’s mettle?

Steve Sarkisian’s program is built on the motto “All Gas, No Brakes,” and features a quarterback in Quinn Ewers who was hyped to be the top player in his class, much unlike Penix, who had to prove himself at Indiana before turning himself into a Heisman finalist.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, center, waits to take the field with his team before a game against Kansas on Sept. 30.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, center, waits to take the field with his team before a game against Kansas on Sept. 30.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

But to assume the Longhorns are a bunch of entitled pretty boys would be a mistake. Texas plays behind Bevo-inspired beef along the trenches, and Sarkisian appears to have constructed a winning culture for the first time as a head coach.

Funny enough, with the turn of the calendar to 2024, this game now may as well be for Big Ten versus SEC bragging rights. But the Huskies can still make this a fairy tale ending for the Pac-12.

Here are five things to watch in the Sugar Bowl:

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40
93
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11
23
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23
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