The Washington Huskies are ranked #18 in the country and #14 in the preseason AP Poll and figure to challenge the status quo in the Pac-12 North.
Let me start this out by stating something. I have grown up a Husky fan my entire life, my dad went there in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I am going into my senior year at the Seattle campus.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk Husky football, shall we?
As mentioned prior, there is a lot of hype surrounding this Washington Huskies squad. They’re ranked in the top-20 of the preseason polls, and many people have them as their “dark horse” pick to not only win the Pac-12 this season, but to make the College Football Playoffs as one of the top four teams in the entire country.
The last time the Washington Huskies made a “premier” bowl game was back in January of 2001 when they beat Purdue 34-24 in the Rose Bowl. That may not sound that long ago to some, but to drive home how long ago this was, Drew Brees was the opposing quarterback, Marques Tuiasosopo was a senior playing his last game, Rick Neuheisal was UW’s coach, and I was five years old.
Where is the Washington Huskies Hype Coming From?
This hype is also coming after a 7-6 record in the 2015-2016 season where they had to win their last two games against Oregon State and Washington State to gain bowl eligibility.
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I do understand the hype around this team, however. This is a team that won their final three games of last season by a combined score of 141-48 and is returning most of their key players from last season.
The success of the 2016-2017 team will be dependent on the offensive backfield of quarterback Jake Browning and starting tailback Myles Gaskin. Both started as true freshmen last year and were huge down the stretch for the Huskies.
Browning was handed the keys to the offense after being one of the more prolific high school quarterbacks of all time. He threw for 2955 yards and 16 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while completing 63.3% of his passes for the Washington Huskies. In the last three games of the season, Browning threw for 698 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception.
Gaskin didn’t become the full-time running back until the Husky’s fifth game of the season against USC when he ran for 134 yards and a touchdown. Despite not getting regular carries until almost midway through the season, the freshman back still ran for 1302 yards and 14 touchdowns, capping off his impressive season with a 181 yard and four-touchdown performance in the 44-31 victory over Southern Miss in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Based on the duo’s successes last season, there’s no reason that they can’t take a step forward and carry this team in the upcoming season. Browning will also have wide receiver John Ross III back on the field this season after missing the 2015 campaign with a torn ACL. Along with Ross, the Washington Huskies also have wide receiver Dante Pettis coming back who is a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands, much like Ross.
Browning will have some familiar faces on the offensive line as well, with the projected depth chart showing sophomore Trey Adams at left tackle, senior Jake Eldrenkamp at left guard, junior Coleman Shelton at center, senior Shane Brostek at right guard, and sophomore Kaleb McGary at right tackle. The group was fairly inconsistent at the start of last year, due in large part to injuries, but the group brings experience from last season and will play a large role in the successes of Browning and Gaskin. If they play up to Petersen’s expectations for the group, we should see one of the better offensive lines in the Pac-12.
Then There’s the Washington Huskies Defense
Obviously there’s reason to be giddy about this team because of the bright spots at quarterback and running back, but the real reason why the Huskies have an opportunity to win the Pac-12 and perhaps sneak into the playoffs is because of the stacked defense coach Petersen wields.
Much like the Seahawks, the strength of the Husky defense comes in the secondary. Led by Junior safety Budda Baker, the Washington Huskies feature one of the best secondaries in the country. Baker is a preseason All-American, Sidney Jones was one of the better cornerbacks in the Pac-12 last season, and Kevin King is returning as well. The Huskies also have Darren Gardenhire, who has shown he can hang with the big boys, and JoJo McIntosh will be alongside Baker as the other safety.
In the linebacker corps, Azeem Victor will be one of the leaders of that defense as he logged over 90 tackles as well as an interception returned for a touchdown against rival Washington State in the Apple Cup last year. Kieshawn Bierra is also returning and he had over 70 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Senior Joe Mathis will lead the defensive line, who played mostly at linebacker in previous years, and had two sacks last season. Alongside him will be sophomore defensive tackle Greg Gaines, who had at least one tackle in all but two games last season and had 10 in the loss to Utah. Elijah Qualls, a junior, will be the other starting tackle and he had 4.5 sacks last season. Opposite of Mathis will be Vita Vea, a sophomore who had a tackle in all but two games last year.
Now that we’ve met the team a little bit, what can we really expect from them? The talent is there, and they really didn’t lose too many players from last year besides at the wide receiver and linebacker. They bring back a very young, but experienced, backfield and a loaded secondary to lead the defense, and with Chris Petersen as the head coach, there has to be a belief that they will be competitive in every single game that they play.
But is being competitive good enough? Petersen was brought in after historic success at Boise State and he has not had nearly the same level of success since coming to Seattle. The level of hype this team is receiving is staggering especially after coming off a seven-win season last year.
The Washington Huskies are going to be much improved this season, and it will be the best team we’ve seen from the university in a long time. But they still play in the Pac-12, and they are in the tough Pac-12 North division.
They should handle their business in their three non-conference games against Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State, but then they get a tough road test against Arizona.
The biggest two games on the schedule are back-to-back in weeks 5 and 6 when they host Stanford, the favorite to win the Pac-12 North, and then travel to Autzen to face the Ducks of Oregon. Those two games will determine if the Huskies are for real or not.
I think ultimately they win one of those tough games against Stanford and Oregon but lose the other, and fall to Arizona and USC en route to a 9-3 regular season, and the best season the Washington Huskies have had in over a decade. The hype is understandable, but the team is still very young, and if Baker forgoes the draft to return for a senior year alongside will-be juniors Browning and Gaskin, next year could be the year the Huskies are a team to be reckoned with nationwide.