SEATTLE — Fresh off an upset win of eighth-ranked Stanford, the University of Washington football team is sitting pretty this week with its first top-25 ranking of the season.
The trick now is staying there.
The last time UW held a Top-25 ranking for consecutive weeks was nine years ago, when coach Keith Gilbertson had a ranked team for five consecutive weeks before an Oct. 4, 2003, loss to UCLA sent the Huskies into a tailspin that would last almost a decade. Current coach Steve Sarkisian has had two ranked teams, both of which got hammered the next week and fell back to earth.
Add in a Saturday date with No. 2 Oregon, and the 23rd-ranked Huskies (3-1) have their work cut out for them when it comes to staying in the polls.
Suffice to say, Sarkisian isn’t giving any history lessons to his players this week. Nor is he spending too much time dwelling on the new number in front of Washington’s name.
“You ultimately have to go play the games,” he said during his Monday press conference. “For us, if people perceive us to be a top-25 team, I’m sure that’s exciting for our fans and all that. For us, it’s never even been brought up. It didn’t get brought up in (Sunday’s) team meeting; it was never brought up with any of the players.”
And yet the No. 23 ranking was not exactly news to the players who were at Monday afternoon’s press gathering. The Huskies know all too well where they stand after Thursday’s 17-13 win over Stanford.
“It’s good,” junior safety Sean Parker said, “but we’re not really looking at that right now.”
The 2011 Huskies were in a similar situation this time last year, with a 5-1 start that had them ranked 22nd in the nation before a humbling, 65-21 loss to seventh-ranked Stanford knocked UW from the Top 25. The Huskies never rebounded from that, eventually losing five of their final seven games to close out the 2011 season.
Two years earlier, in Sarkisian’s first year at UW, the Huskies knocked off third-ranked USC in September to move into the national rankings for the first time in almost six years — only to get hammered by Stanford 34-14. That game began the ascent of Stanford into a traditional national power, while the Huskies are still trying to maintain some sort of relevance on the national level.
Part of Sarkisian’s strategy this week is to ignore the ranking and keep the focus on Oregon. The Ducks’ run of success has made it pretty easy to keep the players on task, but Sarkisian also knows from past experience how a ranking can get into a team’s head.
He said Monday of the team’s mindset after the 2009 upset of USC: “Man, it was easy to walk around and get patted on the back a whole lot all the way up to kickoff of that Stanford game the next week.”
Sarkisian added that this year’s team has a more business-like focus and that he doesn’t expect the ranking to affect the players one way or the other.
“I’m kind of over the external motivators,” he said. “Maybe you learn a lesson as a coach. This team, I don’t think external motivators are what pushes their buttons.
“I’ve said this now for a few weeks this is a serious group, very close-knit. They were excited to win the game Thursday — believe me — but when we came back to work Saturday, there wasn’t a whole lot of hooping and hollering and smiling.”
The Huskies now have a number in front of their name. By this time next week, they’re hoping it doesn’t go away.
Another poor showing against the Ducks, who have now beaten UW eight consecutive times, probably would take that No. 23 ranking away.
“We’ve still got to play the game,” senior linebacker Thomas Tutogi said Monday. “We can’t let this (Stanford) win get to us. We’ve still got to stay focused and keep climbing.”