Defending Pac-12 champion Washington aims to return to the mountaintop in 2019
Washington football embarks on the 2019 season on the most impressive, ongoing three-year stretch of any program in the Pac-12, and designs on a third conference title in four seasons. The standard of excellence to which the Huskies have steadily built under head coach Chris Petersen will be tested in a campaign with some of the pillars of the rebuild gone.
Out is four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning. So is his backfield mate Myles Gaskin, as well as 2018 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Ben Burr-Kirven. But the talent's present for Washington to get back to the Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi's Stadium, and perhaps even the College Football Playoff.
The schedule isn't a killer, but also shouldn't elicit the vitriolic talk of "cupcakes" that emanated from TV broadcasts in 2017, either.
12. Aug. 31 vs. Eastern Washington
Last season's FCS runner-up is historically a tough out for Pac-12 opponents, scoring wins over Oregon State and Washington State in 2015 and '16, and taking Washington teams to one-score finals in 2011 and '14. The Eagles will again contend for the Big Sky Conference championship and a deep FCS playoff run, and their potent passing attack will not be an easy first opponent for a new-look Washington secondary.
11. Sept. 14 vs. Hawaii
Another early-season test for Washington's restructured secondary, Cole McDonald leads the high-powered Rainbow Warriors' passing attack into Seattle. Hawaii will challenge for the Mountain West Conference's West division in 2019 behind its offensive firepower, returning Cedric Byrd and JoJo Ward both at wide receiver. The duo accounted for 18 touchdown receptions and more than 1,800 yards in 2018.
10. Nov. 8 at Oregon State
Former Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith integrated some of the same effective run-pass balance at Oregon State that powered Washington to a Pac-12 championship in 2016. The Beavers return one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, 2018 breakout sensation Jermar Jefferson, as well as productive wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins. Both offensive line and defense are question marks for the Beavers heading into 2019, however, two phases in which Washington is well-equipped to exploit.
9. Nov. 23 at Colorado
The two programs that met in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship experienced considerable turnover in the few years since. For Washington, most of it came on the roster, where four-year starters like Ben Burr-Kirven, Myles Gaskin and Jake Browning exhausted their eligibility. At Colorado, disappointing finishes in the 2017 and '18 campaigns precipitated the ouster of Mike MacIntyre. Defensive guru Mel Tucker takes over, looking to introduce a physical and disciplined style similar to that which fueled Washington's run to two Pac-12 titles in three seasons.
8. Sept. 21 at BYU
BYU's time in the Top 25 a season ago ended with a thud at Washington, as the Huskies' stellar defense completely shut down the Cougars' unique offense. The return match in 2019 offers plenty of intrigue; BYU is tough to beat at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and the Cougars' veteran defense employs an imposing, physical style that might give a Washington offense still early into its rebuild without Browning and Gaskin some fits.
7. Sept. 7 vs. Cal
The quick and drastic improvement Justin Wilcox oversaw in the Cal defense should not have come as any surprise to Washington faithful. The Golden Bears head coach took over a struggling Washington defense in 2012 and helped make it one of the Pac-12's most tenacious before his departure for USC in '14. Cal has quickly gained a reputation as one of the most annoyingly physical opponents for Pac-12 competition, and again, Washington knows it well. The Golden Bears upset of the Huskies in Berkeley last season was the signature win of Wilcox's first two seasons at the helm.
6. Sept. 28 vs. USC
The lone regular-season blemish on Washington's 2016 docket came at home against USC. The Trojans return to Husky Stadium for the first time since that November 2016 meeting with a Rose Bowl and Pac-12 championship won in the seasons since, but an uncertain forecast for the program's immediate future. The introduction of Graham Harrell as USC's new offensive coordinator makes the Trojans Washington's third opponent in the first month of a regular season with air-raid influences on the offense.
5. Oct. 12 at Arizona
The Arizona matchup is one that, on paper, is quite favorable to Washington. However, Huskies teams have a long history of struggling in road games played in the state of Arizona. Washington dropped a confounding decision at Arizona State in October 2017, one year removed from a three-win Arizona team taking the Huskies to overtime in Tucson. The Huskies' woes in the Grand Canyon State go back more than a decade, and this year's Arizona team could be a dark-horse contender in the Pac-12 South.
This may also be the peak trap game on Washington's schedule. The Huskies play Pac-12 North counterpart Stanford on the road one week prior to this matchup, then host Oregon in a rivalry showdown the following week.
4. Nov. 29 vs. Washington State
A snow-covered Black Friday night last November determined the 2018 Pac-12 North, virtually 10 years to the day of Apple Cup rivals Washington and Washington State playing with one win between the two of them. Last season's memorable encounter marked the second Apple Cup with championship implications in the last three years, a clear indicator of the current Pac-12 landscape.
Washington draws hosting duties for this year's affair, which could again decide who moves onto Santa Clara and the Pac-12 Championship Game.
3. Nov. 2 vs. Utah
Both of last season's meetings went Washington's way, but not without a fight. The Pac-12 title game was particularly close, won only on Byron Murphy's interception return for a touchdown. The third meeting in less than 14 months should be another physical slugfest between what looks like the two best defenses in the conference.
A boon for Washington is home-field advantage combined with the luxury of coming off of a bye week. Having as many fresh bodies as possible against Utah's hard-hitting style is crucial.
2. Oct. 5 at Stanford
Home teams have won each of the last four meetings in this series of similarly built programs. And, since a Washington romp in 2016, the encounters have come down to the game's final play. This one is a pivotal date on the calendar for both teams beyond the obvious — each is now a perennial Pac-12 contender — but it also moves one onto the inside track for the division after some tough matchups preceding it.
1. Oct. 19 vs. Oregon
The heated border rival between Washington and Oregon takes on heightened significance with Chris Petersen and Mario Cristobal at the helms of their programs. The similar philosophies clashed a season ago to make for an overtime classic, in which the Ducks snapped a modest, two-game losing streak — after dominating the rivalry for more than a decade.
With this falling at its customary place midway through the calendar, it won't determine the Pac-12 North, but the outcome will certainly play a huge factor in the race.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.