A return to national prominence highlighted No. 8-ranked Washington's 2016 season. The Huskies stormed their way to a College Football Playoff appearance after claiming the program's first conference championship since 2000.
In head coach Chris Petersen's fourth season, one marked by the return of a bevy of playmakers on both sides of the ball, Washington aims for even more in 2017.
The outlook for another banner season starts at quarterback with Jake Browning. Browning registered Heisman Trophy-caliber numbers last season before a shoulder injury slowed his progress. Entering his third year as the starting quarterback, Browning has an opportunity to take the Huskies to heights not seen since the early 1990s.
The defense lost several big names to the NFL draft this spring, but the unit has plenty of difference-makers remaining on that side of the ball – guys like Taylor Rapp, whose two interceptions in last December's Pac-12 Championship Game helped lift Washington to victory.
It's a much different story for host Rutgers, which went 2-10 in 2016 with no wins against Power 5 conference competition.
Washington at Rutgers
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 1 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Washington -27.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Rutgers any closer to slaying a beast?
In head coach Chris Ash's first season, the Scarlet Knights mounted up and rode in to face off with a quartet of proverbial dragons – Big Ten champion Penn State; 10-win Michigan; College Football Playoff participant Ohio State; and Pac-12 champion/Playoff participant Washington.
Rutgers was summarily dispatched by those four teams by a combined 210 points. The most competitive of these blowouts came in Week 1 at Washington, where the Scarlet Knights lost, 48-13.
A year of familiarity with Ash's system should result in some degree of improvement for Rutgers – though being much worse would be difficult. The Scarlet Knights are going to have to show more life against that top-tier competition, considering they again play one of the toughest schedules in college football. And it starts right away against Washington.
2. Two-headed running back monster
Washington complemented a stifling defense (No. 8 in points allowed per game in 2016) with a potent run game. Executing an effective rushing attack is much easier when a team can rely on two equally productive backs to carry the load, and the Huskies made that clear with Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman.
Gaskin and Coleman return after combining for 17 rushing touchdowns and more than 2,200 yards a season ago. Gaskin demonstrated his explosiveness in 2015 as a freshman feature back, but Coleman's 7.5 yards per carry in 2016 made him one of the most impressive change-of-pace rushers in all of college football.
Combined, the duo ranks among the very best running tandems in the nation. Look for one – or both – to run wild on a Rutgers defense that ranked No. 126 against the rush a season ago.
3. How deep is Washington's defense?
With Budda Baker, Elijah Qualls, Sidney Jones, Kevin King and others gone from the Washington defense, one could reasonably expect a step back from the lofty standard set in 2016 – that is, if the Huskies weren't returning Vita Vea, Taylor Rapp, Azeem Victor and other noteworthy names.
However, the depth of the 2017 Huskies defense will get an additional test at Rutgers Friday, with standout linebacker Victor suspended.
Victor's suspension for a violation of team rules does leave the linebacking corps down a supremely talented body. But, with Keishawn Bierria leading the unit, the drop-off in production shouldn't be too stark – especially since Victor missed four games in 2016, giving this group an opportunity to play meaningful games without him.
Perhaps more noteworthy is that Austin Joyner also is suspended, taking away a game-experienced member from a secondary that was especially hard hit by departures.
Traveling across the continent is never easy, and Week 1 contests can often pack the greatest potential for upset. Teams are still finding their identity and learning where certain responsibilities lie.
And while Rutgers should show some improvement in Year 2 under head coach Chris Ash, the Scarlet Knights are well removed from being able to compete with a team of Washington's caliber – jet lag or no.
The multifaceted Washington offense should exert its dominance early, capitalizing on the opportunities set up by a stingy Huskies defense. An impressive opening half performance should allow Petersen to give his reserves plenty of playing opportunity.