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But They Haven’t Played Anybody!

How has UW fared historically against ranked opponents?

AP Sports Editor Alan J. Gould
Uncredited photo, Associated Press

It’s something of a canard for people trying to argue why their team is better or—more to the point—someone else’s team is worse to point to the other team’s lack of scheduling appropriately tough foes and rolling up their record on creampuffs. There’s definitely no foolproof way of measuring strength of schedule, be it preseason rankings, in-season rankings, end-of-season rankings, advanced stats and projections of how a team should have performed in terms of wins and losses (regardless of actual results on the field) and on down the list.

We have vastly more data available now than ever before, especially in advanced metrics, but even in terms of simple rankings the gold standard for college football, the AP poll. You may be wondering who that old-timey newspaper man is in the image for this article. That’s Alan J. Gould, the sports editor for the Associated Press in 1935 who came up with the bright idea to rank college football teams by himself. He named Minnesota, Princeton, and TCU co-number 1 that year and apparently was hanged in effigy in Minnesota for the affront to Golden Gopher honor. In an attempt to spread the responsibility around (and avoid getting hanged for real if he ever showed up in Minneapolis in person), he started the nationwide AP poll the following year.

While the poll has been around a long time, it hasn’t been uniform across time. From 1936-1960 they ranked the top 20, then from 1961-67 they only ranked the top TEN, then back to 20 again from 1968-1988, and finally the current top 25 model from 1989 to the present. Up through 1967 (with a few exceptions), the final poll took place before the bowl games, as every true Husky knows from the 1960 shared title after defeating #1 Minnesota 17-7 in the Rose Bowl (a similar result happened in 1964 with pre-bowl #1 Alabama losing the Orange Bowl, with Arkansas the only undefeated, untied team from that year claiming a shared title after the fact). From 1968 on, the AP ran their polls after the bowls, with UPI following suit in 1974.

That year, 1974, is a convenient place to look because from then to now covers exactly 50 seasons. That’s pretty much the Pac-10/12 era plus a little as well. History doesn’t necessarily predict the future, but it’s a nice sample size to look back at UW’s football history in the past half-century and see how they’ve done against ranked teams. For the sake of ease and uniformity, I’m using the AP poll at game time as the measure of “played a ranked team.” I know this can lead to some kinda weird results (like Michigan State last year - #11 when we played, in the toilet bowl by the end of the year), but over the course of 50 years I’m going to lean on the law of averages evening that out with teams that were unranked when we played who might have ranked up later (like this year’s Arizona squad). This is for fun, not for my dissertation, so those are the ground rules.

As it happens, Washington had its most successful year EVER against ranked opponents in 2023. They not only beat FIVE ranked-at-the-time teams (Oregon twice, of course, plus Oregon St., USC, and Utah), but they did it without losing a game. Their previous record for wins against ranked teams in a season without a loss was four games last year (Oregon, Oregon St., Texas, and the aforementioned Michigan St.). I’d say the Coach DeBoer era has started pretty well, considering he’s broken school records for ranked wins without a loss both seasons (and could extend that record in the CFP).

The only previous times UW has beaten four AP-ranked opponents in the same season, we had losses on the schedule, including 2016 (Alabama, USC), 1992 (lost to Arizona, WSU, and Michigan), and 1990 (lost to Colorado). Prior to last year, the best UW had done vs. ranked foes without a loss was going 3-0 in 1991 (Nebraska, Cal, Michigan), 1982 (UCLA, Arizona St., Maryland), and 1981 (USC, WSU, Iowa).

We’ve played a lot of ranked teams over the past 50 years, sometimes when we were ranked, sometimes not. Sometimes we were ranked higher, other times we were the underdog. We’ve played teams in conference and out. We’ve stomped some ranked opponents and been stomped by others and had nail-biters go both ways.

The question for today is how UW has performed against AP-ranked opponents during those years. They’ve played a total of 202 games against ranked opponents, with a total record of 85-115-2, a 0.421 winning percentage. Considering the quality of opposition, I’d call that a pretty solid record. No fattening up on Directional State U. when you’re only counting ranked games. If people enjoy this I might do some of our current, past, or future rivals to get a sense for where UW stands in comparison.

That total of 202 games over 50 years gives us an average of almost exactly 4 games per season. Due to quirks of scheduling, they played only 1 ranked team each season in 2020 (COVID year, that makes sense) and 2021 (OK, that was just a bizarre fluke), losing both. The highest number of ranked games ever for UW is 7 in 1992, going 4-3, but when UW makes it to the CFP title game they’ll tie that record!

[Note: They actually had 4 seasons in the 1940s and 1960s where they played ZERO ranked teams, but as noted things were strange and different in the olden days.]

With all that said and done, I created a quiz to see if you can guess which teams we did the best and worst against among those ranked opponents. One caveat is that this does not include teams we only played once when they were ranked (which includes one of the teams named above in this article). It also includes only ranked teams we’ve played in the last 50 years, so your memory might play tricks on you if you think too hard on big games we played way back when - there are teams we played multiple times when they were ranked back in the day but not as a ranked opponent in the most recent half-century. Check it out and Go Dawgs!

https://www.sporcle.com/games/JasonNelsonUWDP/best-uw-winning-percentage-vs-ranked-foes

P.S. If people are curious, I can drop some info on the Huskies and ranked opponents in the early years of the AP, or even the full year-by-year table of results, going all the way back to the dawn of the poll. Frankly the 1936-1973 era wasn’t awash in greatness for UW, with some really good years mixed in with a lot of mediocrity to badness, but it was interesting seeing teams we played back then and the evolution of which teams were good in which eras.

Let me know in the comments below!