The Washington Huskies kicked off the Jimmy Lake era under the most peculiar of circumstances. To wit, the Huskies finished 2020 with the best winning percentage in the Pac-12 North but could not compete for the conference championship due to COVID-19 protocols.
If nothing else, 2020 adds a unique new layer to the heated Washington-Oregon rivalry. The 2021 installment could make up for the lost 2020 encounter, as the two figure to set the pace in a once-again loaded North.
Lake, an outstanding recruiter and defensive guru, retains a talented roster in the coming season more than capable of making the program's third Rose Bowl in six seasons — if not a College Football Playoff berth.
1. A salty front seven
Few teams around college football can boast a front seven as stacked as Washington's in 2021. The Huskies welcome back a wildly productive linebacker corps, including Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Jackson Sirmon, and Edefuan Ulofoshio. Former five-star recruit Sav'ell Smalls will be a player to watch as the Huskies adjust to possible changes with Pete Kwiatkowski gone as coordinator.
The defensive line also features some exciting, young talent: tackles Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele were two of the most highly rated prospects at their position in the 2019 signing class. Sam Taimani is a space-eating presence against the run in the vein of Vita Vea.
2. Exciting pieces on offense
Since the 2016 Washington offense put up more than 40 points per game, the Huskies have faced some inconsistency on that side of the ball. Myles Gaskin left following the 2018 Pac-12 championship campaign after making an indelible impact on the program, but Jake Browning's persistent shoulder injury issues prevented Washington from maximizing its potential in those years.
Jacob Eason showed glimpses of being a star at quarterback, but it wasn't sustained. Questions remain heading into 2021, but the potential for Washington's offense to break out is there. In the year of the unicorn tight end, Cade Otton arrived late to be one of the nation's best at the position. He declared his intent to return in December, setting a foundation for the passing game.
The running-back room at Washington is full of capable playmakers, including Kamari Pleasant, Sean McGrew, and Richard Newton, and offensive line play has been a consistent strength for the Huskies in recent years. Perhaps 5-star freshman quarterback Sam Huard will be the catalyst for reigniting a dangerous passing attack.
3. Marquee matchups on Montlake
The 2021 schedule breaks down with Washington drawing more Pac-12 games at Husky Stadium (five) than on the road. More importantly, the home games are among the most important on the Huskies' slate: Arizona State, Oregon, Cal and Washington State. An early-season trip to Michigan is one of the highlight road encounters, and a prime opportunity for Washington to make an early statement on the national landscape.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.