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Apple Cup 2016: The stakes couldn’t be higher for WSU and Washington

It’s time. Let’s do this.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

About 11 months ago, Gabe Marks decided to forgo entry into the NFL Draft and come back to Washington State for one more year — his fifth. He didn’t need to, and likely would’ve gotten paid handsomely to fulfill a dream to play in the NFL. But he felt like there was some unfinished business to attend to in Pullman.

At the time, he said he felt like the Cougars were on the cusp of something special, and that he had a goal, set four years before, that was within reach: A Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl. It’d be easy to laugh this off as an obvious goal for every team in the conference,: Even Paul Wulff teams talked Rose Bowl. And after dropping a game to Eastern Washington to open the season, followed by a loss to Boise State, it looked as though Marks’ return would be wasted.

Here we are, though, with five days to go until the Apple Cup. Washington and Washington State sit alone atop the Pac-12 North standings, clear of the field and each with one Pac-12 loss. Before the season started, the Apple Cup looked like it could, finally, carry some weight again. But that probably underestimated the stakes for Friday’s game.

You know how the story has unfolded for the Cougars. After the annual FCS loss and a close one against Boise State, the Washington State found its rhythm and started pounding on folks. Records started to fall, streaks started to be broken, and the Cougars were doing things they hadn’t done in over a decade — including ripping off eight wins in a row for the first time since the 1930s.

On the other side of the mountains, Washington was doing its part too. The Huskies started off fast and only hit a speed bump against USC. They remain in the playoff hunt with one loss on the season. There’s not much to say other than this: Washington is a very, very good football team.

About a month ago, it became clear that both teams were speeding towards Pullman on a collision course. On Black Friday, in Martin Stadium, they’ll slam into each other for 60 minutes, and someone will walk out with a Pac-12 North title that comes with a shot at the Rose Bowl.

There have been big games before in this series, games where one team had a Rose Bowl trip on the line and the other was trying to play spoiler. There’s been times when both teams were relevant nationally, as well, but you have to go back 15 years to get there. There’s only been one time in the series history when the Huskies and Cougars kicked off the Apple Cup knowing it was one-vs-one for a title, and that was 1936.*

*A note here: Because of expansion, the days of knowing who wins the conference and goes to the Rose Bowl are over. Also, 1981 did end up determining which of the two teams went to the Rose Bowl, but Washington needed help — USC needed to beat UCLA in a game that was running at the same time as the Apple Cup.

Despite the early-season stumbles and inconsistent-at-times play, Washington State is right where it wants to be. The Cougars control their own destiny, and can earn a trip to Pasadena by just winning. Standing in the way is a Washington team — which also controls its own destiny — that should scare you.

At the same time, you should be excited instead of worried. Washington and Washington State are excellent, entertaining football teams. The hype around this game is at levels we haven’t seen in what seems like forever. The Cougars have held up their end of the bargain this season and are not only relevant at the end of November, but dangerous.

The goal Gabe Marks set out to achieve when he signed with Washington State is right in front of the Cougars, within their grasp. It’s a one-game season now, and everything is on the line.

Welcome to Apple Cup week.