The heavy Pac-12 preseason favorite opens 2018 against a fellow College Football Playoff hopeful out of the SEC
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Washington Huskies defensive back JoJo McIntosh has a level-headed perspective on a Week 1 showdown with Auburn that shouldn’t be paradoxical.
“That first game doesn’t determine the season,” he said during Wednesday’s Pac-12 Media Day at Loews Hollywood Hotel.
McIntosh is correct, at least philosophically. Precedent even supports his assertion: The College Football Playoff has yet to crown a single undefeated national champion, and last year’s field was bereft of unbeatens altogether.
Losing a game is hardly a deterrent for a Power 5 conference pursuing the playoff. Losing earlier in the season lowers the hurdle. Usually.
Not much is usual about the circumstances surrounding the 2018 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta, though.
A pairing of top 10 opponents, Washington-Auburn is the rare Labor Day weekend contest that should weigh heavily on the College Football Playoff selection process, if both teams are as good as advertised. And the two are deemed preseason contenders with mirroring characteristics.
“As far as Washington is concerned, you're talking about a top 10 opponent,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said at last week’s SEC Media Days, going into a list of positives that applies as much to Malzahn’s Tigers as Chris Petersen’s Huskies. “One of the best quarterbacks in college football, one of the best running backs. Coach Petersen is -- his name speaks for itself. He's one of the best coaches there is.”
Indeed, Auburn has Jarrett Stidham at quarterback; Washington, Jake Browning. Auburn running back Kam Martin returns to build on his 6.1 yards per carry average from last season; four-year Washington starter Myles Gaskin averaged 6.2 en route to 1,380 yards on the season.
While Petersen built an unlikely powerhouse at Boise State, and has since restored Washington to prominence, Malzahn boasts a national championship as an offensive coordinator at Auburn and came a play away from winning another as the Tigers head coach in 2013.
And, while the SEC has staked its reputation on a hard-hitting style that puts yards and points at a premium -- “big boy football,” as some say -- Washington has D’d up at a level ranking with the nation’s very best in recent years. Auburn was No. 11 in points allowed in 2017; Washington ranked fifth, a jump from No. 8 in 2016.
Meanwhile, McIntosh said without hesitation that the 2018 unit is Washington’s best yet of the Petersen era.
“It’s going to be the best defense we’ve had,” he said. “We’ve lost players over the years, but we keep getting more and more players, so we keep getting better and better.”
Indeed, an influx of young talent gave Washington a boost last season. Underclassmen like Taylor Rapp, Ryan Bowman and Austin Joyner were pivotal in 2017, and head into this fall as cornerstones of a veteran defense.
Auburn isn’t lacking its own returning talent on defense, with last year’s youngsters such as Derrick Brown, Jeremiah Dinson and Jamel Dean as positioned as this year’s leaders.
Those shared qualities equated to similar results in the 2017 season. Both teams finished taht campaign with 10 wins. Both participated in New Year’s Six bowl games -- Auburn the Peach, Washington the Fiesta -- but losses in those contests sent each into the offseason with sour memories.
However, that sourness lingering with Washington for the past seven months applies to the entire Pac-12 Conference.
A conference-record nine bowl bids became a historically woeful 1-8 postseason finish for the Pac. One need not Google for long to stumble on a national outlet forecasting the downfall of Pac-12 football.
A poor showing in SEC territory from the Pac-12’s overwhelming favorite to win the league -- Washington garnered 37-of-42 first-place votes in the preseason media poll -- would invite more of the same.
“That’s more for you guys [in the media] to the decide, ‘what’s the storyline going to be?’” said Browning. “If we beat them, for us hopefully, [the storyline] is ‘on to the next game.’”
Technically, that’s true. Week 1 vs. Auburn does not count on Washington’s final ledger any differently than Week 2 against North Dakota. Except, it does count more.
Showing Some Love
Heisman Trophy runner-up and Stanford RB Bryce Love is also a human biology major at Stanford. Cardinal head coach David Shaw announced Love’s course work kept the running back from traveling to Hollywood on Wednesday -- WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside took the day off from his internship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Love’s place.
Nevertheless, the 2018 Heisman favorite Love took questions from the media on a Skype session.
“We love J.J. He deserves to be there,” Love said. “I really wanted to be there to represent the university. I was sad I just wasn’t able to make it happen this year.”
Arcega-Whiteside’s continued progression as the offense's big-play threat will play a central role in keeping defenses from loading the box against Love. He is just one contributor to an offense that Love touted, namely the line.
“I feel like I have the best offensive line in the country: Nate Herbig, Jesse [Burkett]; even the depth. Drew Dalman, Dylan Powell, the list goes on,” Love said.
Offseason Growth Regimen
NFL draft pundits are touting Oregon QB Justin Herbert as a first-round draft prospect, and he looks the part. Herbert is bulked up to 240 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame, owed to a diet he said is heavy on fish.
He’s also the rare quarterback whose weight-room partner is a defensive lineman, as Herbert credited fellow Pac-12 Media Day attendee Jalen Jelks for pushing him in workouts.
A more muscular physique isn’t the only growth Ducks fans can expect to see from the quarterback when he takes the field Sept. 1 against Bowling Green.
Herbert is sporting long, luxurious locks of hair.
“What about that?” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. “I was afraid someone was going to kidnap him out here in Hollywood and make him an actor or something.”
Reading is Fundamental
Cal RB Patrick Laird put out the call to Bay Area children to hit the books this summer via his website, WalkOnThenRun.com.
The Patrick Laird Summer Reading Challenge asks elementary school students in first and second grade to read four books or more in the summer, and students in third through sixth grade to read at least six books. Participants receive four tickets to Cal’s season opener against North Carolina.
“I announced [the Challenge] and within a week, I had 300 sign-ups,” Laird said. “Now, I’m at about to 3,500.”
That’s a lot of well-read Golden Bears fans reading their way into Memorial Coliseum. Laird said he has also received a bevy of positive feedback from parents, teachers and students.
The Challenge isn’t just for elementary school kids, either. Laird himself said he is on his sixth book of the offseason: The Undoing Project, penned by The Blind Side author, Michael Lewis.
Laird’s love of reading even shows up on the field: The running back celebrates touchdowns turning the pages of an imaginary book.
“[Former Cal wide receiver] Chad Hansen scored a bunch, doing these cool touchdown celebrations,” Laird explained. “We were all going around the room one day, coming up with funny celebrations, and someone jokingly said, ‘Patrick would probably read a book.’
“I kept it in the back of my mind,” he continued. “Then a year later, I got the opportunity to do it.”