Chris Petersen, Washington football grapple with outsized expectations

July 15, 2016

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – Every offseason the reporters who cover college football put their heads together and come up with a couple teams for whom circumstances seem to dictate improved play in the upcoming season.

This year one such blessed program resides in the country’s most northwestern corner, where the hype is swirling around the Puget Sound and misting off the Montlake cut.

Now, because of its past success and built-in advantages, Washington is a school for whom pundits have been stamping their feet impatiently for some time, predicting bigger things for the Huskies than they’ve been able to achieve since Rick Neuheisel led them to the Rose Bowl shortly after the turn of the century.

It hasn’t been this strong in a while, though. The Pac-12 media picked UW to finish No. 2 in the North division, only behind projected conference champion Stanford. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News thinks the Huskies will win the conference, and the UW has been bandied about as a darkhorse playoff contender.

Heady stuff for a team coming off back-to-back seasons of in which it lost more Pac-12 games than it won.

Chris Petersen, entering his third season at UW with a 15-12 overall record, would prefer hype follow wins, not precede them.

“Last year the preseason hype was we wouldn’t win four games, and they were dead wrong. So I’m really scared that you guys are dead wrong again because you usually are,” Petersen said. “So that’s why I put no stock in it, you know. We’re in the rankings. We’re in the postseason rankings, you know. I’m a voter on the top 25 football teams, and it’s a complete waste of time and crapshoot for the first five weeks. I don’t know, and I study this stuff all the time. I don’t know who’s any good. The teams change so dramatically.”

But let’s acknowledge why so many media members have singled out the Huskies. The most obvious thing to like about the Dawgs is their defense, which ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 last season, and returns a litany of future pros. The UW could have potentially the best secondary in the country this year – Budda Baker and Sidney Jones are surefire NFL draft picks, and Kevin King probably is as well – and one of its best linebacker crews. The defensive line will be fine at worst.

“I think whenever you have a really good defense, you have a chance to win, and that’s why I give Washington the nod over Washington State,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst and former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “They had a really good defense last year and they have the chance to have that same defense this year.”

But, you know, the Huskies had a great defense last year for all the good it did them. The year before the UW had three defensive players selected in the NFL draft’s first round, and those Huskies never sniffed a Rose Bowl.

So when folks project big things for the UW, what they’re really saying is they think the offense will finally catch up. And maybe that’s not unreasonable. The Huskies averaged 47 points over their last three games, as starting true freshmen Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and Trey Adams turned into veterans.

The UW offense also returns John Ross III, an explosive receiver who missed last season with an injury.

Gaskin had an exceptional season at running back, going for 1,302 yards despite not playing much in the early games. Expected improvement by Browning is the biggest reason to think UW’s offense could take off, and while he showed some talent as a first-year quarterback, he’s not a sure thing like Gaskin.

Given that so much of UW’s preseason hype is dependent on the expected improvement of a sophomore quarterback, it’s easy to see a world in which the Huskies fall far short of their expectations. Then again, Browning will have the luxury of rarely if ever facing tougher defenses than the one he sees in practice each day.

“Our offense is going to keep progressing. We progressed a lot at the end of the season, and we were fortunate enough to go against that great defense,” said tight end Darrell Daniels.

“Just going against those guys is going to make us better.”