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Washington Huskies Quietly Building Momentum Towards Potential Playoff Berth

Azeem Victor

Azeem Victor

The Washington Huskies have the best defense in the country. Yep, you read that right. Better than Alabama. Better than Michigan. Better than Wisconsin.

Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen

Led by talented defensive playmakers like Vita Vea, Azeem Victor, Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett, Washington has the No. 1 total defense in the FBS (240.9 yards per game allowed), and has held opponents to just 3.71 yards per carry, which also is tops in the nation. The Huskies have a well-rounded unit that ranks third against the pass (149.8 ypg) and tops the national leaderboard in yards per pass attempt (5.8). Washington also ranks sixth when it comes to stopping the run (91.1 ypg) and sits third in yards per carry (2.58) allowed. The Huskies have 29 sacks (tied for ninth) and the defense has forced 16 turnovers (tied for 31st).

Diving even a bit further, the Huskies recently overtook the top spot defensively in Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+ rankings (13.1), slightly ahead of Alabama (13.6). Thanks in large part to that elite standing, which is paired with a talented (though injury-thinned) offense headed by quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskins, Washington is currently No. 3 in Connelly’s overall S&P+ team rankings.

However, Connelly’s rankings aren’t the ones that count, and Washington, 8-1 overall and 5-1 in Pac-12 play, was slotted No. 9 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. The committee apparently hasn’t been impressed by the Huskies’ defensive prowess. Perhaps more specifically, the committee hasn’t been impressed with the soft schedule Chris Petersen’s team has played to date.

After all, no team the Huskies have played is currently ranked in the Top 25, and that includes Arizona State, which beat Washington 13-7 in Tempe last month. The loss to the Sun Devils is arguably the worst among the one-loss contingent vying for a spot in the playoff.

This week’s opponent, Stanford, spent most of the season in the Top 25, including the inaugural playoff rankings last week, but the Cardinal have underperformed and fell out after last week’s loss to Washington State. That means the No. 19 Cougars are the only team on Washington’s regular season schedule currently ranked in the Top 25.

Nevertheless, Washington is quietly building a playoff-worthy resume. Non-conference wins over Rutgers and Fresno State are slightly more impressive today given the improvement both teams have made over the course of the season (believe it or not). Rutgers is still alive for a bowl bid and Fresno State (which has already qualified) could even win the Mountain West, which would be a nice boost. As for Pac-12 play, though no past opponent is currently ranked, the only team Washington has played that has been eliminated from postseason contention is Oregon State. Colorado, Cal, Arizona State and Oregon are all one win from bowl eligibility. UCLA needs two – a long shot, but still possible.

Looking ahead, the Huskies have an opportunity to make a statement Friday night against Stanford, and then against Utah, yet another conference foe just a win away from bowl eligibility. Assuming the Huskies beat the Cardinal and the Utes, the Apple Cup would provide a marquee matchup in the regular season finale. Should Washington again survive and secure the Pac-12 North Division title, the conference championship game, which would likely feature current No. 11 USC, has the potential to be a top-10 showdown. Therefore, there’s potential for Washington to finish with at least two wins over Top 25 teams, and Stanford could potentially sneak back in. Other than the ugly “1” at the end of Washington’s record, it’s a resume similar to the one Alabama and Wisconsin have at the moment.

Furthermore, three teams currently ranked ahead of Washington are guaranteed to lose (Alabama or Georgia, Notre Dame or Miami or Clemson, and TCU or Oklahoma). A few others face very tough tests from fellow playoff contenders meaning the potential for chaos (Auburn could beat Georgia and Alabama, then Georgia again in the SEC Championship Game, for example) exists.

Washington is lurking well behind every other one-loss Power 5 team today, but given the strength of the defense, the Huskies have a great shot winning out – while in the process passing its toughest tests at the end of the season when those victories would be fresh on the playoff committee’s minds. Throw in the losses sure to come for teams ranked ahead of them, as well as a regular season schedule that looks stronger as the season wears on; and a 12-1 Washington team would have a solid argument when the dust settles and the playoff committee compiles its final rankings.

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.