Petersen downplays No. 6 Washington carrying flag for Pac-12

SEATTLE (AP) — Chris Petersen wanted to make clear that No. 6 Washington is not carrying the weight of the entire Pac-12 into its opening matchup against No. 9 Auburn.

He also made certain to emphasize the Huskies aren’t facing the entire Southeastern Conference when they travel to Atlanta.

“We’re not playing their whole conference. It’s our first game. It’s one game against a really good team. It’s going to be a team a lot of people are going to talk about through the whole season. We know that. That’s what it is,” Petersen said Sunday. “The coaches have this in perspective. It’s one game against a good team and win or lose we have a bunch after us and no matter what happens it doesn’t make or break our season. It just doesn’t. That’s the mindset. We’re on to the next thing. What did we learn? How can we improve, no matter what happens in that outcome?

“They understand we’re playing a really good team going in from a really good conference … but we can’t make it bigger than it is.”

As much as Petersen is trying to downplay the significance of the opener against the Tigers, it still does have massive importance in whether either team will find itself in the College Football Playoff conversation. It’s also an opportunity for the Pac-12 to get an early marquee victory after a lackluster bowl season in which the conference went 1-8, including Washington’s loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.

“To put all this on us, we have to see how the season plays out,” Petersen said. “Everybody is like, ‘Last year because of the bowl record’ and all that kind of stuff. They’re all putting this as, ‘This is a chance, this has to happen.’ We don’t see it like this. Nobody else is playing Auburn in our conference except for us.”

This will be the 13th time Washington has opened the season against a ranked opponent, but only once have the Huskies faced a top-10 team: 1998, when they opened the season with a 42-38 win at No. 8 Arizona State. Washington has its highest preseason ranking since 1997, when the Huskies began the season No. 4, rose to No. 2 in September and finished ranked 18th after going 8-4.

Clearly it’s the biggest opener of Petersen’s tenure at Washington — although his return to Boise State three years ago with the Huskies had major personal undertones because of his history as the coach of the Broncos. The matchup with Auburn has also quieted critics who took shots at Washington’s weak non-conference schedules in recent years — schedules that were mostly created before Petersen ever set foot on Washington’s campus. What were supposed to be important home-and-home games against Rutgers each of the past two years instead became fuel for poking holes in Washington’s resume when making comparison with other teams that were vying for playoff consideration.

There won’t be the same criticisms this year, no matter what the outcome is on Saturday. But that also means there’s little margin for error.

“I think the players and fans might like it better than the coaches. Because you just know there’s going to be, it’s those first-game things like, ‘Huh? How did that happen?’ When you’re playing a team as good as Auburn, that can be painful,” Petersen said. “That can hurt you bad. But it’s very challenging. It makes you have your game right, right from the start. If not, you know you’re going to pay the price. Our kids understand that.”