ATLANTA — Washington quarterback Jake Browning had thrown about 20 passes in warm-ups for the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl when the Georgia Dome started to rumble with “Roll Tide Roll” chants.
About 55,000 Alabama fans stood in unison as their team began to peer out from the tunnel opposite Browning before beginning its own warm-ups. Between his next few passes Browning looked over his shoulder to see the players emerging until he finally turned, propped the football on his hip and watched the Crimson Tide take the field.
It was his first real look at the team that had dominated the line of questioning over the previous three weeks — how good, how big, how strong Alabama was in 2016.
And over the next three hours Browning would face off against the Tide on the field, doing his best Usain Bolt impression as he tried to sprint away from Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen and his gang of quarterback hunters. Ultimately it was Allen and the top-ranked Tide who would roll on to Tampa, Florida, for the College Football Playoff National Championship, with a 24-7 win over No. 4 Washington.
If Washington coach Chris Petersen was looking for an educational end to 2016 for his team, this game was the perfect order.
Because it’s one thing for him to set the expectation in Seattle for the Huskies to be a championship team as he builds the program. It’s another thing entirely for every player on that roster to see what that expectation looks like, up close and personal, in Atlanta — seeing where the distance between themselves and the best was both as great and not as great as some might’ve imagined.
“[Alabama] is the best team in the nation right now, the hottest team in the nation, the program that has run college football,” Browning said. “We’re a couple plays away. You’ve got yourself on film playing against the best. … Now just building on top of that.”
Last season the Huskies used a November loss against Arizona State to propel their end-of-season kick and their offseason work (which pushed them to a 12-2 season and a trip to the College Football Playoff). Now, they’ll use this film to motivate the team over the offseason heading into 2017.
Washington safety Budda Baker said the key for this group in using this loss to strengthen its foundation will be keeping the focus small, on daily tasks, and reminding players of what they’re working for — which shouldn’t be hard since the memory of this trip and experience will be so fresh.
“There’s no other motivation to have — you went to the College Football Playoff semifinal and you lost,” Baker said. “The next year you’re going to want to go and win.”
Petersen will be able to spend the offseason drawing positives from this loss — how the Washington defense totaled nine tackles for loss against the Tide, how it held Alabama to a season-low 57 passing yards — to show how the distance between “elite” and Washington might not be as great as some imagined.
But Petersen also will be able to use this game as teaching tape, especially for an offense that looked suffocated and overwhelmed for most of the game.
The distance between Washington’s offense being good and great was evident on Saturday night, but after a month of answering questions about whether the Huskies deserved to be on this stage, they had an opportunity to answer.
They showed that they had earned it and that the foundation in Seattle is strong, but Washington might need a bit more time to fine-tune some of the pieces.
Browning will be back for that process, as will much of the starting rotation. But several players — such as senior cornerback Kevin King — will not return.
King is one of the few players on the roster who was recruited by Steve Sarkisian (who took his position as an Alabama offensive analyst in a coaches box shortly before kickoff) but who stayed through Petersen’s early transition.
As a freshman in 2013, his career began with a Washington win over Petersen’s Boise State team in Seattle. As a senior, it ended with Petersen as his coach in Atlanta.
As King walked off the field in the Georgia Dome on Saturday, he turned to take in the stadium one last time as his teammates, most with their heads down, ran back to the locker room.
King faced Alabama players as they surrounded coach Nick Saban, as they doused themselves in sparkly confetti, as they put their “Still Rollin’” shirts on over their pads and uniforms. He was able to see the end result of Saban’s process and what that meant for his players, how Washington is en route but still a ways behind.
He slapped hands with players and eventually, after Petersen ran through the tunnel, he followed as one of the last Huskies to exit the field.
“To come into the program the way they did, not too far removed from a winless season, and to leave it how it is now,” Browning said of the Huskies’ senior class. “They really set the stage for some of the younger guys and myself to really take this program to the next level.”
And on Saturday night the Huskies saw exactly what that next level would look like. It’s Alabama. And though Washington isn’t right there, the Huskies are close enough to look it in the eyes.