Off the pristine shore of Lake Washington sits Husky Stadium, the home of a powerhouse Don James built in his tenure as Washington Huskies football coach. Dubbed Dawgfather, James oversaw an unparalleled era of prosperity from 1975-92, the culmination of which came with a national championship in 1991.
If the late Don James was Washington football's Vito Corleone, then Chris Petersen is fast establishing himself as Michael. The Huskies' empire seems to be on the return in Petersen's fifth season at the helm, coming off two consecutive double-digit-win seasons. That has not happened in Montlake since James' 1990 and '91 campaigns.
The 2016 campaign marked an especially significant milestone, with Washington winning its first conference championship since the 2000 season, and reaching the College Football Playoff. A return trip to football's final four eluded the Huskies in 2017, but this season's team has the chops to get back there. Washington will go to the mattresses this season with arguably the most talented team in Petersen's tenure.
Three Reasons Washington Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. An outstanding offensive line
Before arriving at Washington in December 2013, Chris Petersen established Boise State as a perennial fixture in the top 15 with some of the best offensive line play in college football. He's built Washington with a similar approach, and the 2018 front five should be his best yet.
A pair of high-value NFL draft prospects line up at each tackle position, with All-America candidate Trey Adams aiming to bounce back from a knee injury on the left side; and Kaleb McGary manning the right side. Adams and McGary provide a foundation for a line featuring some new starters on the interior, losing Andrew Kirkland and Coleman Shelton from the 2017 lineup. But with Matt James, Jesse Sosebee and Luke Wattenberg, Washington's offensive line has no shortage of experienced players ready to make key contributions.
So long as the offensive line stays healthy, it's the best the Pac-12 has to offer -- and ranks among the very best in the country. This should translate into success for a multifaceted run game and veteran quarterback, Jake Browning.
2. Dominating defense
Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski's defense finished in the top rights for points allowed each of the last two seasons. A bevy of NFL talent made the Dawgs' dominance possible, and a considerable portion has indeed gone onto the pros. And yet, the 2018 defense could be Washington's best since Steve Emtman powered the '91 national champions.
Consider the returning starters to what is one of college football's most experienced rotations. The Huskies have back tackles leader, linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, as well as aggressive pass-rushing presences Tevis Bartlett and Ryan Bowman. The edges will be vulnerable as opposing offensive lines try to solve the massive Greg Gaines' presence on the interior.
Pressure in opposing backfields should translate to turnover opportunities for a secondary that was young last year, but is tested coming into 2018. Expect Byron Murphy to build off an impressive freshman year, while 2016 frosh breakout Taylor Rapp contends for national honors.
Perhaps the most defining trait of the 2018 Washington Huskies is that one facet does not define them. Browning and Myles Gaskin have both shown the capacity for conference Player of the Year-caliber performance, a testament to UW's balance on offense.
However, the defense has been vital to the past two seasons' success. To wit, Rapp and Budda Baker's turnover creation in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game saved Washington from an upset bid vs. Colorado.
Meanwhile, one of the best staffs in college football oversee it all. Petersen built on a few seasons of promise at Boise State and turned that program into a national powerhouse. He's parlayed the raw talent Steve Sarkisian stockpiled in Washington into national title viability at Washington. But UW's success isn't simply a byproduct of being coached-up: NFL quality players on both sides of the ball separate Washington from other programs.
Three Reasons Washington Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
The injury bug has not been kind to Washington of late. Jake Browning's Heisman Trophy candidacy in 2016 evaporated commensurate with his sustaining a shoulder injury. Likewise, his inability to throw the deep ball as effectively took away a critical component of the offense in Washington's national semifinal against Alabama.
Last year, Washington lost Chico McClatcher, Trey Adams and Quinten Pounds over the course of the season, badly impacting the potency of the passing game.
Washington is hardly the only team prone to injury. It can befall any squad and mean the difference between any win or loss -- and one win or loss can mean the difference in making the playoff or not.
2. Offensive consistency
Washington has the pieces necessary to put eye-popping numbers on any scoreboard around the Pac-12 (and, for the sake of its playoff chances, Atlanta). However, meeting that potential has not always been easy for the Huskies over the past two seasons.
In losses to USC and Alabama in 2016, Washington scored 13 and seven points. Against Arizona State last October, the Huskies mustered just seven in a confounding defeat that all but eliminated UW from playoff contention.
Certainly health plays a part in Washington's offensive outlook, but the Huskies simply need to find ways to be more effective on offense. Myles Gaskin's return at running back provides a cornerstone, with the explosive Salvon Ahmed capable of a star turn as Washington's change-of-pace option. Losing Dante Pettis hurts the passing attack, so Browning must establish new primary go-to weapons to prevent defenses from stacking the box.
3. Early pitfalls
Washington has an opportunity to assert its position as a national championship contender right out of the gate. The Huskies' Week 1 matchup with reigning SEC West champion Auburn sets the stakes not just for the Dawgs, but the entire Pac-12. Washington's performance in Atlanta might very well dictate the playoff attitudes assigned to the conference, which is a lot of pressure for one team to carry.
The Auburn matchup is ostensibly a road game; two weeks later, the Huskies travel to Salt Lake City for an actual road game vs. Utah. The Utes have come within a score of besting Washington each of the last two seasons, and Kyle Whittingham may have his most balanced team at Utah since joining the conference in 2011.
September will either define Washington as a viable national championship team, or erase the Huskies from the playoff conversation early.
The peculiarity of last season's Arizona State loss, and the playoff elimination suffered in a defeat at Stanford on a short turnaround, rendered Washington's 2017 campaign something of an afterthought. However, Washington came literally two touchdowns away from a perfect regular season. A weak non-conference schedule and favorable league slate probably would have denied the Huskies a No. 1 seed, but being a No. 2 would have meant playing in the Rose Bowl. There are certainly what-ifs lingering.
Those, coupled with a loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, have presumably placed a chip the size of Mount Rainier on the Huskies' collective shoulders. Expect to see an angrier Washington football team in 2018, beginning Week 1 against Auburn.
The Huskies can and will make a statement that resonates throughout the season, on the way back to the College Football Playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (8-1, Pac-12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 10.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 10