Expectations at their current level have not faced the Washington Huskies in quite some time. Chris Petersen’s squad checks in at No. 11 in the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25, tops among Pac-12 teams.
Washington hasn’t won a conference title since the 2000 season, a campaign that culminated in a dominating defeat of a Drew Brees-led Purdue squad in the Rose Bowl. Plenty of indicators point to this being the year the Huskies return as top Dawgs in the West.
Why Washington Will Win the Pac-12 in 2016
Petersen’s Boise State teams earned national recognition for employing trick plays, but the heart of the Broncos’ success almost always came on the defensive end.
With former Boise State defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski in tow, Washington’s tapped into the same defensive intensity.
The Huskies held opponents to an average of 18.8 points per game in 2015, 13th-best in the nation and tops in the Pac-12. That's not a misleading or a padded figure, either. Many of Washington's best showings came against some of the most explosive offenses in the nation.
Among some of the more noteworthy performances were holding USC to 12 points, Oregon to 26, Washington State to 10, and Arizona to just three.
Washington loses high-energy linebacker Travis Feeney and position-mate Cory Littleton, but the starting defense is otherwise intact. Safety Budda Baker has All-America potential anchors a loaded secondary, which got an impressive star-turn performance from cornerback Sidney Jones.
Despite losing just shy of 15 sacks from Feeney and Littleton, Kwiatkowski's defenses have always flourished with an aggressive pass rush. Look for a breakout season from linebacker Keishawn Bierria on the perimeter, and Elijah Qualls to make an impact on the interior.
Qualls was limited late due to an ankle injury, but at 100 percent, he's one of the best defensive tackles in the Pac-12. The defense shouldn't miss a beat, and the offense can build off a strong finish.
Washington took some time to find its identity when it had the ball, which is to be expected from a team starting true freshmen at quarterback and running back. But those early snaps helped Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin grow by season's end, manifesting in the Huskies dropping 44 points or more four times in their final six outings.
Behind a stout and experienced offensive line, Washington has a solid foundation around which to build. It's not the kind of offense that will blow away defenses with tempo, but the group's style and strength complements the defense nicely.
Both offensively and defensively, Washington's make-up is reminiscent of that of Stanford. If you're going to look like a conference foe, the winner of three of the last four league championships isn't a bad place to start.
Why Washington Won’t Win the Pac-12 in 2016
The road to the Pac-12 championship passes through the North. Every league titleholder since expansion in 2011 came out of that division: Oregon in 2011 and ‘14, and Stanford in ‘12, ‘13 and ‘15.
Oregon and Stanford have indeed reigned supreme over the Pac-12, and count Washington among the Ducks’ and Cardinal’s subjects. The Huskies are a combined 1-9 against the kings of the conference in that time.
In fact, Washington’s losing streak to rival Oregon dates back to 2003. One of the first questions Petersen fielded at his introductory press conference in December 2013 centered on the Huskies' losing streak to the Ducks.
The coach joked, "Do we have to start that already?" But the time to answer the question is now.
Washington's 0-2 against Oregon in Petersen's first two seasons. A comeback effort fell short last season in the Huskies' best opportunity to score a win over the Ducks in quite some time.
Both teams feature different players and it's a different season, but that Oregon losing streak hangs around the Huskies' necks like a millstone.
The Stanford series has been more competitive. Washington scored a win in Seattle in 2012, and took the Cardinal to the wire on the road in ‘13. The series returns to the Northwest this year.
Those are two hurdles Washington must prove it clear to return to the pinnacle of the Pac-12 – and that's to say nothing of resurgent rival Washington State.
The Huskies thrashed an injury-depleted Cougar squad last November in Seattle, but this year's installment of the Apple Cup returns to Pullman.
A trio of games in the North should determine Washington's worthiness to represent in the Pac-12 Championship Game. It's a treacherous road, particularly with two trips away from Husky Stadium.