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Chris Petersen’s Washington has all the tools for another run through the Pac-12

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The Huskies were one baffling loss away from a second straight conference title, and they return an absurd amount of talent and experience.

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington
Chris Petersen
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Aside from maybe Iowa-Ohio State, it was the damnedest, most inexplicable game of 2017. Washington averaged 6.4 yards per play and 36.2 points per game last fall, and Arizona State’s defense allowed 6.3 and 32.8, respectively. The Sun Devils had gotten absolutely torched by Stanford, allowing 34 points and 504 yards in just 57 plays, in the game before Washington’s visit, and UW had yet to score fewer than 30 points in a game.

On October 14 in Tempe, though, ASU’s fatally flawed defense was almost perfect. The Sun Devils sacked Jake Browning five times (he was sacked just 14 times in the season’s other 12 games), the Huskies went three-and-out four times in all and punted on every possession of the first half. They began to find life in the third quarter, but backup place-kicker Van Soderberg, in for the struggling Tristan Vizcaino, missed a 27-yard field goal wide left and doinked a 21-yarder off the right upright. (ASU also partially blocked a punt, which set up a field goal.)

ASU’s offense did almost nothing after dinking and dunking its way to a touchdown on its opening drive, but the missed field goals were the difference. The Sun Devils pulled a 13-7 upset, holding UW to 3.8 yards per play and three scoring opportunities.

Washington would go on to score 44 points on UCLA, 41 on Wazzu, 38 on Oregon, and 33 on Utah. Vizcaino would make eight of 10 field goals from that point forward. ASU would go on to allow 52 to NC State, 48 to USC, 44 to UCLA, and 30 to Colorado.

If they score even 14 against ASU, the Huskies win the Pac-12 North and are projected favorites over USC for the conference title. They potentially finish 12-1, giving the CFP committee a brutal decision to make between a one-loss power-conference champion and a one-loss Alabama that had just lost to Auburn and missed out on the SEC title game; the only time a one-loss P5 champ has been left out of the CFP was in favor of other one-loss P5 champs in 2014.

So either Washington makes the CFP for the second straight year, eliminating the eventual national champ in the process, or we spend the entire offseason talking about UW and the CFP and scheduling and ESPN’s role regarding all three.

Instead, the Huskies basically disappeared as a national topic for a few weeks, finished 10-2, and came up short in a spirited Fiesta Bowl against an awesome Penn State. Not the worst fate in the world, of course, but not what could have been.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the story, though. After finishing fifth in the S&P+ rankings (ahead of No. 8 Clemson, the team it might have faced in the CFP, by the way), the Huskies now return 75 percent of last year’s production, second-most in the Pac-12 and close to a level that almost assures improvement. They will add the fruits of a top-15 recruiting class and get quite a few key pieces back after injury.

Aside from one nightmarish trip to Arizona, UW was by far the best team on the West Coast last year, and the Huskies have all the components to be even better this year. Plus, they don’t have to worry about ESPN getting petty with them again because of shaky non-conference scheduling: they start the season with a neutral(ish)-site game against Auburn in Atlanta.

Chris Petersen’s building process has been steady and linear. After a first-year reset, Washington has finished 10th, then seventh, then fifth in S&P+. Petersen has crafted a roster that gracefully mixes blue-chip recruits with the lower-rated, chip-on-shoulder guys he so very much thrived with at Boise State. He has been everything Washington could have hoped for when it lured him to Seattle in 2014, and now he has a chance to take yet another step forward.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Jake Browning
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Washington offensive radar

On paper, Washington is one of the most proven teams in the country heading into 2018. But if there’s another step to be taken here, it’s on offense.

The main difference between UW and the rest of college football’s best teams is that there appears to be a clear recipe for beating the Huskies. You take what the Husky defense gives you (which isn’t much), avoid forcing the issue, prevent the UW offense from making big plays, and pressure Browning on passing downs.

Granted, not many can actually pull this recipe off — UW has, after all, won 25 of its last 30 games — but it’s on the table. Over the last two years, UW has averaged 7.1 yards per play in 22 wins but only 4.5 yards per play in five losses. In those losses, they’ve only once allowed more than six yards per play or scored more than 22 points.

Washington had the most efficient offense in a high-efficiency conference last year — which makes the 38 percent success rate against ASU even more baffling — but was only average to above-average from a big-play perspective. If you’ve got elite athletes on defense (or if you’re ASU), you can hem the Huskies in.

2017 Washington offensive efficiency & explosiveness

This is doubly true for the passing game. Browning has been incredible in three years as Petersen’s starter, throwing for 9,104 career yards and completing 64 percent of his passes. He raised that to 69 percent last fall but averaged only 11.8 yards per completion. Worse, his wideouts only averaged 11.9 per catch, and any big-play prowess came from the tight end position (Hunter Bryant and Will Dissly combined to average 14.4 yards over 43 catches.

The Huskies very much missed Chico McClatcher, in other words.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington
Chico McClatcher
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

McClatcher broke his ankle run-blocking in UW’s easy win over Colorado. He has averaged 15.9 yards per catch over 48 career receptions (not to mention 7.5 yards per carry in 39 career rushes), and Browning averaged 13.9 yards per completion with him in the lineup last year and 10.9 without. The redshirt junior from Federal Way, Wash., is a potential difference-maker.

He’ll need to be one, anyway, because Browning will be without two of his steadiest targets in Dante Pettis and Dissly. Pettis caught 67 percent of his passes in 2016-17 (and also returned six punts for touchdowns), and Dissly caught 74 percent.

The Huskies are trading reliability for upside, though. Bryant missed the last five games of the year but still finished second on the team in receiving yards as a freshman. Junior wideouts Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia and sophomore Ty Jones are still around to provide possession options, four-star redshirt freshman Terrell Bynum could provide some burst in the slot, and if blue-chip freshman Marquis Spiker — a top-60 overall recruit and top-10 receiver in the 2018 class — is ready to explode from day one, there will very much be a space for him. The same goes for two other incoming four-stars, Austin Osborne and Trey Lowe.

New offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan will have a nice run game to lean on, too, as somehow Myles Gaskin still has eligibility left. The senior-to-be has rushed for at least 1,300 yards in each of his first three seasons and will likely break Napoleon Kaufman’s school record for career rushing yards in either the first or second game of the season. (Side note: Kaufman was fun as hell.)

Gaskin and four-star sophomores Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew will be running behind a line that does have to replace one first-team all-conference blocker (center Coleman Shelton) but returns two others (tackles Kaleb McGary and Trey Adams, who was lost for the season during the ASU game) and boasts 96 returning career starts overall. Gaskin and Ahmed were easily UW’s two biggest big-play threats last year, and there’s no reason to think they’ll be any less explosive this time around.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Myles Gaskin
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

A former Petersen quarterback at Boise State and a UW assistant until 2017 (when he served as the Atlanta Falcons’ QBs coach), Hamdan is as well-versed as anyone in Petersen’s efficient, “recruit smart players and give them big, complicated game plans” approach. He replaces Jonathan Smith, who left to take the Oregon State head coaching job. Petersen seamlessly replaced countless OCs at BSU, and I can’t even bring myself to worry about Hamdan.

It comes down to big plays. UW had big-play threats John Ross and McClatcher when it reached the CFP in 2016, but Ross is a Cincinnati Bengal, and McClatcher was hurt for all three losses last year. Stretch the field out wide, and UW has an answer for pretty much anything.

Defense

2017 Washington defensive radar

In an effort to keep one of his most in-demand assistants, Petersen played a dangerous game, and he might get away with it. He promoted secondary coach Jimmy Lake to defensive coordinator, giving Pete Kwiatkowski a slight demotion to co-coordinator. That’s an incredibly risky move considering how good UW has been under Kwiatkowski — the Huskies have ranked eighth, eighth, and sixth, respectively, in Def. S&P+ over the last three seasons — but that’s how badly Pete wanted to keep Lake.

It’s not a stretch to say that Washington had the Pac-12’s only good defense last year.

2017 Washington defensive efficiency & explosiveness

The Huskies dare you to be patient, knowing you probably can’t be. They were a Chinese finger trap of a defense last year, ranking first in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays), second in gains of 20-plus yards allowed per game, and sixth in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards). They force you to take whatever they give you and nothing more.

UW has only one true difference-maker to replace in 2018, but it’s a big one, literally and figuratively. Nose tackle Vita Vea, a first-round pick to the Tampa Bay Bucs, forced double-teams on virtually every snap last season, giving Washington the sort of interior-caving force makes a 3-4 defense (or any other alignment, I guess) unstoppable. His presence drove a No. 11 Rushing S&P+ ranking and forced opponents to throw more than you really want to against a Lake secondary.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington
Tevis Bartlett (17) and Austin Joyner (4)
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Vea was a catalyst, but he wasn’t the only key player, of course, even on the line. Senior Greg Gaines is a bowling ball in his own right and should handle nose tackle duties well, and every other lineman returns, including the duo of sophomore Levi Onwuzurike and senior Jaylen Johnson who combined for 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks among their 27 combined tackles. Look out for 338-pound blue-chip freshman Tuli Letuligasenoa, as well.

The line should still hold up, and if it does, it’s hard to worry about anything else. UW does have to replace inside linebackers Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor, but Tevis Bartlett, Ben Burr-Kirven, and a healthy DJ Beavers (who missed eight games) should more than deliver there, and on the outside Ryan Bowman and Benning Potoa’e combined for 14.5 TFLs as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Myles Bryant
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

UW has more than enough linebackers, and better injuries luck could make the defensive backfield once again one of the best in the country. Byron Murphy managed 10 passes defensed and three TFLs in just six games as a freshman last year, and senior-to-be Jordan Miller had seven PDs in seven games.

If they’re healthy, then with Murphy, Miller, junior Austin Joyner, and sophomores Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor, UW has one of the deepest CB corps in the country. The Huskies also have junior Myles Bryant (five TFLs, nine passes defensed), one of those lower-rated chip-on-shoulder guys and one of the best nickel backs in the country.

Injuries and shuffling caught up to the Huskies late in the season — they allowed a passer rating higher than 121 just twice all year, but it happened in the 11th (Utah) and 13th (Penn State) games. But with most of the secondary back, along with their two most prolific pass rushers (Bartlett and Bowman), the pass defense should be more than capable of offsetting any Vea-based regression in run defense. I would be shocked if this isn’t Washington’s fourth straight top-10 defense. Or at least top-15.

Special Teams

UW’s average Special Teams S&P+ ranking was 39.3 over Petersen’s first three seasons, but the Huskies plummeted to 105th thanks to Vizcaino’s shaky start. He began 4-for-9 on FGs before finishing 8-for-10, prompting Petersen to make a brief, ill-fated switch to Soderberg. His kickoffs were also far less effective.

That overshadowed how dominant UW was in the punting game. Joel Whitfield (seventh in punt efficiency) was a revelation as a freshman, and Pettis was one of the best return men in recent college football history.

Whitford’s back, as is a pretty explosive kick returner in Ahmed. But with both Vizcaino and Pettis gone, this unit will be redefined for worse and maybe better.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Auburn 5 1.5 53%
8-Sep North Dakota NR 48.1 100%
15-Sep at Utah 28 12.0 76%
22-Sep Arizona State 57 24.1 92%
29-Sep BYU 76 27.5 94%
6-Oct at UCLA 39 15.4 81%
13-Oct at Oregon 23 10.1 72%
20-Oct Colorado 89 31.0 96%
27-Oct at California 65 20.0 88%
3-Nov Stanford 20 14.5 80%
17-Nov Oregon State 110 36.2 98%
23-Nov at Washington State 41 16.1 82%
Projected S&P+ Rk 4
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 15 / 5
Projected wins 10.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 13.5 (12)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 17 / 24
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 8.5
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (70%, 81%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.9 (-0.9)

S&P+ thinks very, very highly of UW this season. The Huskies are super experienced, their recruiting is improving, and aside from one amazing, baffling mid-2017 result, they have been just about the steadiest team in college football. They are projected as a double-digit favorite, with at least a 72 percent win probability, in 11 games after the season-opening tossup against Auburn.

There are challenges, to be sure — the Huskies have to visit Utah (a team they’ve barely beaten in each of the last two years), UCLA, and a top-25 Oregon — but we’re talking mostly about odds and trust in the offseason. Washington has tremendous odds for winning the Pac-12 and getting back to the CFP, and I trust Petersen more than just about any coach in the sport. So yeah.

After two huge years, this could be the biggest one yet for Pete and UW.

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