The North Division of the Pac-12 has been dominated by Oregon and Stanford since the conference shifted to a 12-team alignment in 2011.
Over the last three years, Oregon is 35-5 overall and 23-4 in Pac-12 play. Stanford is 34-7 overall and 23-4 in conference play during that same span.
Washington hopes to join the Ducks and Cardinal at the top of the Pac-12 North, and after a 34-29 record under Steve Sarkisian, Chris Petersen is tasked with elevating the Huskies into the top tier of the division.
Sarkisian guided Washington to four consecutive bowl games and clearly improved a program that recorded five losing seasons in a row prior to his arrival. The Huskies went 23-16 overall and 15-12 in Pac-12 play over the last three years.
Petersen was regarded as one of the top hires of the offseason, arriving in Seattle after a successful eight-year stint at Boise State. Petersen went 92-12 with the Broncos and finished six times in the final Associated Press top 25 poll.
Replicating that level of success at Washington won’t be easy for Petersen. And the expectations of the program are higher than finishing 5-4 in conference play on a consistent basis. Washington rates as the No. 23 job in the nation – No. 2 in the Pac-12 North. With a renovated stadium, good tradition and fan support, the Huskies can climb higher in the North.
Petersen’s Job History:
2006-12: Boise State – Head Coach
2001-05: Boise State – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
1995-00: Oregon – Wide Receivers
1993-94: Portland State – Quarterbacks
1992: Pittsburgh – Quarterbacks
1987-91: UC Davis – Head Freshman Coach/Wide Receivers
Obstacles to Overcome:
Quarterback Play?: Cyler Miles is expected to be a breakout star for the Huskies in 2014, but the sophomore missed spring practice due to an off-the-field incident and is suspended for the opener against Hawaii. With a new offensive scheme, it’s important for Miles to get acclimated to new coordinator Jonathan Smith this fall. Although quarterback play should be a strength by the end of the year for Washington, how long will it take Miles to settle into the starting role? With games against Oregon and Stanford early in the Pac-12 slate, Miles is under pressure to perform right away.
Running Backs: Is there a clear replacement for Bishop Sankey on the roster? The Huskies may not need a back capable of toting 275 carries this year, but the pecking order at running back needs to be established. Will sophomore Dwayne Washington claim the No. 1 job? Or will Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper factor into the mix? How about redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman or linebacker Shaq Thompson?
Secondary: This group is the biggest concern for Petersen in year one. The Huskies ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last season and must replace three starting defensive backs. Junior cornerback Marcus Peters is one of the best in the conference, but safety Sean Parker and cornerbacks Tre Watson and Gregory Ducre have expired their eligibility. True freshman Budda Baker and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly are two names to watch in the revamped secondary.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Offensive Line: This unit has been a source of concern in recent years, but the Huskies should have one of the Pac-12’s top lines in 2014. All five starters return this season, including guard Dexter Charles and tackles Ben Riva and Micah Hatchie. Having a veteran line should help ease the transition for new quarterback Cyler Miles.
Front Seven on Defense: New coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski inherits a defense that held opponents to 22.8 points per game last year. The Huskies return six out of the seven starters up front, including All-American linebacker Shaq Thompson and standout end Hau’oli Kikaha. Washington’s defensive line and linebacking corps rank among the top three in Athlon’s 2014 Pac-12’s unit rankings.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
This area will be one critical aspect of how high Petersen can take this program. Recruiting at Boise State and at Washington are two different challenges. Petersen’s first class at Washington ranked No. 37 nationally in the 247Sports Composite, which was the Huskies’ lowest recruiting haul since a No. 72 finish in 2009. However, Petersen got a late start after taking the job in December and managed to salvage the class after inking 17 three-star prospects.
As of July 30, Washington’s 2015 class ranks No. 63 nationally with only eight commitments.
It’s far too early to make any judgments about Petersen’s ability to recruit. Washington is a top 25 program with plenty of resources, and this coaching staff needs time to build connections. And Petersen’s job on the recruiting trail could get much easier if the Huskies win 10 games in 2014.
However, in order to consistently challenge Oregon and Stanford in the North, Washington needs to consistently bring in top 30 classes. Petersen knows how to develop players, but he has to bring in recruits capable of elevating the program.
Washington has recorded just one season of 10 or more victories since 1992. Could that change in 2014? The Huskies play 13 regular season games and should start 4-0 with non-conference matchups against Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State. The Sept. 27 contest against Stanford is a huge statement game for Petersen and Washington. If the Huskies win, they should be 6-0 heading into a matchup against Oregon on Oct. 18. Also, with home games versus Arizona State and UCLA, Washington has a chance to surprise in the North. Of course, road trips to Washington State and Arizona in November won’t be easy. It’s not unreasonable to think the Huskies can sweep their non-conference and Pac-12 home games, while beating California and Colorado on the road. That leaves road swing contests versus Arizona, Washington State and Oregon.
Washington is a program with potential. Sarkisian did a nice job of getting the Huskies relevant in the Pac-12 once again, but the school hopes Petersen is the right coach to take the program even higher.
Petersen was highly successful at Boise State, but transitioning from a job in the Mountain West to the Pac-12 will require an adjustment period. And even with Petersen’s strong track record of player development and X’s and O’s ability, recruiting at a higher level is a must in Seattle.
While Petersen’s run with the Broncos was impressive, can he do what former Boise State coaches Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins couldn’t in the Pac-12? Koetter and Hawkins both struggled to find success at a higher level away from the blue turf.
The pieces are in place for Washington to push for nine or 10 victories this year. The Huskies should go 4-0 in non-conference play and Stanford visiting Seattle in late September is a huge chance to earn a marquee Pac-12 win.
The Huskies have 14 returning starters, including one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the Pac-12. The question marks are few, but fairly significant. The secondary must be rebuilt, and quarterback Cyler Miles has to settle into the starting role.
Sarkisian is leaving plenty of talent behind, and it’s up to Petersen to capitalize on what’s coming back in 2014 and '15. With Oregon and Stanford both expected to lose plenty of key players after 2014, the door is open for the Huskies to make their move in the division over the next two seasons.
Vegas Expectations: 9 over/under (CG Technology)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 9-4 (5-4)