The Washington Huskies will have to navigate some treacherous terrain in order to meet the lofty expectations ahead of them in the 2016 season.
Though Washington's slate is not as brutal on paper as some of its Pac-12 brethren, the uneven breakdown of conference games sends the Huskies on the road more in league play than home. That makes defending the home turf of Husky Stadium paramount.
Washington also travels for what have been some of the more vexing dates on its schedule in any given season. With that in mind, here are the Huskies' 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 17 vs. Portland State
Underestimate "Barney Ball" at your own risk. Though the Vikings check in No. 12 on Washington's schedule ranking, they have been a serious threat to Pac-12 opponents under head coach Bruce Barnam — just ask Washington State. Portland State shocked the nine-win Cougars in Pullman to open last season.
Barnam's unique offensive approach produced 250.6 rushing yards per game, 10th-best in the Football Championship Subdivision, en route to an FCS Playoffs appearance.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Idaho
After a few dismal campaigns to start the Paul Petrino era, Idaho made considerable strides in 2015, winning three games in Sun Belt Conference play. The coming season begins the countdown to Idaho re-joining the Big Sky Conference for football and thus dropping to FCS status.
With 13 returning starters on offense and defense, led by talented quarterback Matt Linehan, the Vandals could make a push for bowl eligibility. They will not matchup particularly well with Washington, however.
10. Oct. 22 vs. Oregon State
Oregon State's first matchup with Washington in the Gary Andersen era went about as badly for the Beavers as possible. The Huskies rolled, 52-7, and did so in the confines of Reser Stadium.
A still-rebuilding Oregon State visits Seattle for this season's affair. The Beavers return six offensive starters with experience in Andersen's system, but a defense undergoing changes with the departure of coordinator Kalani Sitake only brings back four starters. Oregon State should struggle again this year, making this one the lightest of the Pac-12 games on Washington's slate.
9. Sept. 3 vs. Rutgers
New head coach Chris Ash injects some much-needed excitement into the Rutgers football program, but it will take time for his vision to bear fruit in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights return 15 starters combined on offense and defense, giving them about as much experience for the Week 1 tilt with Washington.
However, Rutgers is in more a rebuild phase than the Huskies, and trekking across the continent into one of the more difficult venues to play the season opener bodes well for the hosts.
8. Nov. 19 vs. Arizona State
A two-score lead evaporated when Washington visited Arizona State last November, continuing the Huskies' recent run of misfortune in the desert. Washington is winless in the state of Arizona, a streak that includes a 2015 Cactus Bowl loss.
This time, however, the Sun Devils have to visit Seattle. Arizona State actually won in its last trip to Husky Stadium, escaping a sluggish, 24-10 rock fight in Petersen's first season at the helm. Arizona State's in something of a rebuilding project this season, but the Sun Devils' true identity for the campaign should be pretty well crafted by the penultimate weekend of the regular season.
7. Nov. 5 at Cal
Washington and Cal followed different trajectories in 2015. The Golden Bears escaped Husky Stadium in a September showdown, 30-24, which helped them break into the Top 25 for the first time since the heydays of Jeff Tedford. Cal went on to lose five of its next seven and finish the regular season a pedestrian 7-5, while Washington built up to a crescendo at season's end, fueling the anticipating for this year's Huskies.
The 2016 rematch falls later on the calendar, and in Berkeley, when a completely new-look Cal squad should have its identity. The Golden Bears will have had time to acclimate to a new quarterback (graduate transfer Davis Webb) and will have broken in an entirely new corps of wide receivers to operate in head coach Sonny Dykes' air-raid offense.
6. Sept. 24 at Arizona
Husky Stadium became a house of horrors for Arizona on Halloween night a season ago. Washington dismantled the Wildcats, 45-3, in what was arguably the low point of Rich Rodriguez's four seasons in the Old Pueblo.
Arizona regrouped somewhat after that trip to beat a Top 25 Utah team, then won the New Mexico Bowl to extend a program-best streak of four straight winning seasons. The Wildcats bring back the third-most returning starters (14) of any Pac-12 team, and thus should be improved from a year ago. Couple that with Washington's decade-long struggles in the Grand Canyon, and this stands as a potential early-season trap for the Huskies.
5. Nov. 12 vs. USC
Last season's 17-12 win in the Coliseum captured the essence of Washington football under Petersen. The Dawgs were dynamite defensively and made just enough plays on offense to score a head-turning win.
The departure of then-USC head coach Steve Sarkisian from Washington less than two years prior motivated the Huskies that Thursday night in Los Angeles. That was Sarkisian's last game before Clay Helton took over. With a full year to his credit and the interim label removed, Helton will have set the foundation for the kind of team the Trojans will be under his regime by the time they visit Washington.
Projecting USC's standing ahead of the 2016 season is something of a guessing game, but there's enough talent from years of success recruiting to make the Trojans a tough out.
4. Nov. 25 at Washington State
Luke Falk's injury dampened last year's Apple Cup, which Washington claimed in a blowout to gain bowl eligibility. The stakes should be considerably higher this November, particularly if the Cougars keep their star passer healthy heading into the rivalry showdown. Frankly, no one should be too surprised if the 2016 Apple Cup determines the Pac-12 North's participant in the conference championship game a week later.
Washington State has the edge as hosts, although throughout Mike Leach's tenure, the Cougars have done some of their best work away from Martin Stadium — last season's Apple Cup notwithstanding.
3. Oct. 29 at Utah
Inhospitable Rice-Eccels Stadium welcomes the Huskies to what should be a knock-down, drag-out contest between two defensive-oriented squads. Both may well be in the race for their respective divisional championships when this Halloween weekend matchup is played — if not leading outright.
There may not be any two programs in the Pac-12 that mirror each other more closely than Utah and Washington. Each has staked a reputation on defense, though Utah's done so for longer. Kyle Whittingham is the longest-tenured head coach in the league, while Petersen enters just his third year.
However, like Whittingham, Petersen brought the philosophies that made him a top-level winner in the non-BCS/Group of Five, and seen some success in the Pac-12.
2. Sept. 30 vs. Stanford
Washington gets defending Pac-12 champion Stanford at home, but does so on a short turnaround. The Huskies will face the Cardinal six days after traveling to Tucson to face Arizona, the longest trek on the Pac-12 docket. That's less than ideal for what is sure to be a physical showdown.
Both teams will indeed need to keep the ice packs close at hand on this night. Washington's embraced an approach similar to that of Stanford, building up from the defense and centering the offense around a stout offensive line. Don't expect a particularly high score in this one, which will likely establish the pace for the rest of the Pac-12 North to follow the fnial two months of the season.
1. Oct. 8 at Oregon
Oregon's winning streak in this cross-state rivalry spans more than a decade. Washington hasn't won since 2003, leaving this the highest hurdle for Petersen to clear in his pursuit of the top of the Pac-12.
Oregon is less a Duck for Washington, and more of an albatross. Until the Huskies can reclaim the upper hand in this rivalry series, dreams of returning to the front of the Pac remain just that: dreams.