Sporting its best preseason ranking in 15 years and garnering legitimate Pac-12 championship talk, the Washington Huskies embark on a highly anticipated 2016 campaign Saturday against visiting Rutgers.
Rutgers treks to the West Coast for the third time in four seasons. It opened 2013 in California at Fresno State, and this year makes its return to the Apple State after beating Washington State in Seattle to kick off the '14 campaign.
The Scarlet Knights return to Seattle in transition, featuring a new head coach (Chris Ash), but with 15 returning starters on offense and defense there are plenty of familiar faces on the field. Rutgers is one of the rare opponents with as much experience in the starting rotation as Washington boasts.
Rutgers at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 2 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington -26.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jake Browning's Growth
Washington head coach Chris Petersen was not necessarily thrilled with starting a true freshman at quarterback Week 1 of 2015 at Boise State.
"It's not an ideal situation," Petersen said in April. "I think Jake would tell you that."
Nevertheless, Browning made the best of the situation, completing better than 63 percent of his pass attempts for just shy of 3,000 yards. He also scored 16 touchdowns, though his inexperience manifested in 10 interceptions.
The jump he makes as a sophomore set the course for the strides pundits like the Huskies to make as a team in 2016. Browning's a talented quarterback, and his 2015 unquestionably exceeded expectations. But now that he's established a standard, it's time for Browning to take his production to another level.
2. A New Look for the Scarlet Knights
Not that old game film necessarily says much about any college football team, but the past years' tapes on Rutgers likely forecast less about the 2016 Scarlet Knights than other teams. That's because head coach Chris Ash is making his debut both with Rutgers and as a head coach.
The former Wisconsin, Arkansas and Ohio State assistant spent time working with Bret Bielema and Urban Meyer, two head coaches with vastly different on-field approaches. It's difficult to glean exactly how the Scarlet Knights are going to look their first time out, since Ash's background is so diverse.
One thing's for certain, though: Rutgers will put a premium on defense. Ash coordinated defenses that ranked as highly as No.2 in the nation in points yielded, as was the case for Ohio State a season ago, and all routinely thrived against the run. Expect Rutgers to put pressure on running back Myles Gaskin early and force the Washington offense through Browning, at least in the early phases.
3. Pressure to Produce
The as-of-this-millennium unprecedented expectations on Washington would cause a lesser team to falter. It's a part of every college football season without fail — some team hyped to the moon comes crashing down to Earth, almost immediately.
Washington will have evident kinks to iron out; every team does Week 1 of the season. That's unavoidable. But whether those issues are minor wrinkles or gaping holes will tell the tale for the Huskies' season to come.
Petersen's been a master of exceeding expectations throughout his head coaching career, most notably at Boise State. The 2015 Washington Huskies were expected to finish near the cellar of the Pac-12 North, so finishing 7-6 was an exceeding of those expectations. The only way for the 2016 squad to clear expectations would be to land in the College Football Playoff.
Much of college football is eager to see this Washington bunch. While there are some areas to address offensively, most notably in the wide receiving corps, the return of Gaskin at running back and a stout offensive line are two strong building blocks.
Meanwhile, the defense looks like one of the best in the nation, on paper. Few secondaries can match the sheer talent Washington features in Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King. Given Rutgers' offensive inefficiencies a year ago, and with much of the 2015 Husky defense back in the fold, points should come in short supply for the visitor.
Rutgers presents the greatest challenge to Washington in the nonconference slate. Given how lopsided this one should be, we may not see the real Washington Huskies until the end of September.