The Associated Press released its preseason college football rankings on Sunday, and the list was awfully predictable: Alabama and Clemson were the top two teams by wide margins, and the remaining slots in the top 25 were rounded out by programs that could lean on last year’s performance or a run of recent success. But there was one notable exception: Washington.
The Huskies won just seven games last year, were never ranked, and own a losing record in the 21st century. Yet they didn’t just edge into the rankings; they’re no. 14, a spot they haven’t reached since 2002. The Huskies are there on nothing but hype, a phenomenon that is without recent precedent: You’d have to go back to the 2006 UCLA squad to find the last seven-win team that ranked in the top 15 the following preseason. (The Bruins finished 6–7 the next season, by the way.)
But Washington’s hype is expansive and extends far beyond just the AP poll. If you trust the various preseason preview magazines and rankings, their status as the consensus no. 12 team means they’re neck and neck with defending Rose Bowl champ Stanford as the favorite in the Pac-12 North. Power indexes are also all-in on the Huskies: Bill Connelly’s preseason S&P+ has the team in the top 10, Brian Fremeau’s FEI has them at 15, and ESPN’s Football Power Index puts them at 13. And they’re a top-15 team in Vegas. The Washington hype train has long since left the station, and by the time the season starts it’ll already have launched into outer space.
“We have as much hype as the new Pokémon game,” said head coach Chris Petersen at Pac-12 media days in July. He added: “Last year, the preseason hype was we wouldn’t win four games, and [the predictions] were dead wrong. So I’m really scared that you guys [the media] are dead wrong again because you usually are.”
But the hype has damn near become sentient — no amount of Petersen’s reverse jinxing and tempering of expectations can stop it. So how did Washington, a perennial six-loss team and a fringe bowl contender, turn into Washington, top-15 squad and the most popular dark-horse pick in recent memory? It’s a combination of returning talent, a manageable schedule, and one of the most accomplished coaches in the game.
A Young but Experienced Offense
Other than Ohio State, most teams’ preseason expectations are driven by returning talent. And to that end, Washington is in great shape: The Huskies bring back 15 starters, near the top of the conference and among the top 30 in the country in returning experience.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, a true pocket passer whose strength lies in his accurate ball placement, is the highlight of a sometimes-complicated offense that relies on pre-snap motion to create mismatches, but doesn’t stick to any easily identifiable philosophy. It’s easy to make the case that Browning’s 2015 performance eclipsed that of true-freshman counterpart Josh Rosen, as Browning bested the UCLA QB in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating, even though “Chosen” Rosen, the top pro-style QB recruit in the 2015 class, stole the headlines. Pro Football Focus had Browning as the 15th-best quarterback in college football by passer rating last season, and he should be more comfortable in Petersen’s unique, constantly shifting system as a sophomore.
The Huskies also have another standout sophomore in running back Myles Gaskin, whose field vision and ability to slip past defenders helped him rack up over 1,300 rushing yards on 5.7 yards per carry last season. The running lanes he saw as a freshman will be created by familiar faces this season, as four starters return along the Huskies offensive line.
And while the team lost its two leading receivers from last season, Jaydon Mickens and Joshua Perkins, it gains back John Ross, a junior who missed all of last year with a knee injury. Ross is an explosive athlete who scored seven touchdowns in 2014 (four receiving, one rushing and two return scores) from an average of 75 yards out. He’s a true deep threat, which is exactly what the Huskies attack was missing last year.
Washington had a top-40 offense last year with freshmen in key positions — it’s not hard to imagine the team improving this fall.
The Defense Is Ready to Dominate
While the offense has plenty reasons for optimism, the defense has the eye-popping talent. This was the ninth-best unit in football last season, per defensive S&P+, and it returns seven starters.
Eight of the nine defensive linemen who saw playing time last year remain on the roster, and will anchor a team that gave up the second-fewest rushing yards in the Pac-12. Meanwhile the linebacking corps brings back its two leading tacklers — Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria — making Washington one of only three Pac-12 schools to bring back its top two players in that category.
That’s already pretty good, but the secondary is where the Huskies truly shine: It could be the most loaded unit in the country. Senior corner Kevin King floated in and out of the lineup with injuries in 2015, but he was impressive while he was on the field, picking off three passes. Meanwhile, junior cornerback Sidney Jones earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors while leading the team in interceptions (four), passes broken up (10), forced fumbles (three), and fumble recoveries (two). He threw in 3.5 tackles for loss, too, because why not? But he isn’t even the star of the defense — that would be junior safety Budda Baker.
Baker was the first big recruit Petersen landed in Seattle, as the former Boise State coach convinced him to flip his commitment from Oregon in 2014. He started every game as a true freshman, and was named an All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Last year, he was a first-team all-conference player despite dealing with an ankle sprain that nagged him for much of the first half of the season. This year he’s a favorite to be an All-American. And he’s reportedly added 18 pounds this offseason, a big development for a player who was previously undersized.
Washington was tops in the Pac-12 in both scoring and total defense last year — there’s no reason to think the Huskies couldn’t be even better this season.
Last Year’s Huskies Were Better Than 7–6
Though the 2015 team finished with only seven wins, Washington often played like a top-25 squad. The Huskies blew out Arizona, Oregon State, and Washington State and essentially ended the USC tenure of Steve Sarkisian, the team’s former head coach, with a 17–12 win over the Trojans in Los Angeles. Their losses were often close, with the team going 1–3 in one-touchdown games.
“We [were] right there in every single game but one,” Petersen said. “We were not in the Stanford game towards the end.”
Last year, the Huskies were ranked 13th in Football Outsiders’ F/+ rankings, 20 spots ahead of the next seven-win team. ESPN’s FPI metric pegged Washington as a team that should have won an average of 9.1 games after adjusting for luck and other factors. The Huskies still need to prove they can win against a College Football Playoff contender — solely beating up on lesser Pac-12 squads will only get the team so far in the standings and national rankings — but by every metric, Washington played like a team that should have won more than seven games last season.
The Pac-12 Is Wide Open
Per ESPN’s FPI metric, the Huskies are the favorite in literally every single game they play this season. And with the exception of their 47 percent win probability against Oregon, Washington is also favored in every game in the S&P+ projection. FEI has the Huskies as favorites in all but two games. Those probabilities might be a touch optimistic — no one should be picking Washington over Stanford in Week 5 just yet — but it is clear that the Huskies’ schedule plays into their hand. Their nonconference slate is as easy as they come — they host three cupcake opponents in Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State — and their most difficult in-conference matchups, including games against Cardinal and USC, come on the Huskies’ turf. UCLA, the Pac-12 South favorites, are not on the schedule.
Meanwhile, the conference has no obvious playoff contender. Stanford, Oregon, and USC all have to break in new QBs and navigate schedules with at least one tough out-of-conference opponent. UCLA lost seven starters, and will have to depend on Rosen to shepherd an almost entirely rebuilt offense. It’s easy to see how Washington could take advantage, possibly turning even a two-loss season into a Rose Bowl berth, much like Stanford did last season.
Chris Petersen Is Still One of the Best
Of course, Washington’s hype doesn’t exist without Petersen roaming the sidelines. He perennially posted double-digit-win seasons at Boise State and owns a ludicrous .817 winning percentage. Ever since being Washington’s head coach in December 2013, Washington’s ascendance to the upper echelon of the sport has felt preordained. Petersen’s ability to infuse the Huskies with the levels of success he’s had in the past has never been in doubt; it almost seems fated that it all comes together this season.
It’s Year 3 for Petersen, historically a good year for college head coaches. It will be the first year in which the majority of Washington’s roster will consist of players that Petersen recruited. And his system, particularly on offense, should be firmly in place and ingrained in the returning players.
It feels a little early to crown Washington a conference favorite. The roster is still relying on a few too many sophomores, and the team has yet to win anything of importance (and Stanford still has Christian McCaffrey). But take a look at the Pac-12 landscape, the kind of talent the Huskies are returning, and Petersen’s track record. It’s easy to succumb to the hype.