It feels kind of amazing how quickly your fortunes can change in college football. I’ve always been of the opinion – especially with a school like Washington, that isn’t in the upper echelon of the sport – that you kind of have to build it up over a long period of time. But, with how quickly Kalen DeBoer has turned things around, I’m starting to have second thoughts.
I became a Husky fan when I started going there in the fall of 1999. That just so happened to coincide with the start of the Rick Neuheisel era. I wouldn’t say I was the most knowledgable fan over the course of the next decade; I just sort of took things as they came. It wasn’t until the nadir that was Tyrone Willingham, and our winless 2008 season, that I finally woke up and understood this was unacceptable.
There was a lot of hullabaloo during the Sark era; he truly was rebuilding this program from the ground up. It felt like he left some unfinished business when he abandoned us for USC, but at the same time it felt like we were ready to take it to the next level with Chris Petersen. And, to his credit, he got us into the playoffs, playing in Alabama’s neck of the woods. Even that took three years to get to, but it felt like a natural progression for a program on the rise. That was in 2016, and we’ve spend the subsequent six years spinning our wheels, trying to get back to that level.
Jimmy Lake proved he was NOT the right guy to succeed Coach Pete. To be fair, the COVID year didn’t help any. But, things were trending in a VERY negative direction in 2021, and we couldn’t help but think maybe that was it. Maybe this was a program heading back into the college football wilderness, never to be heard from again.
Kalen DeBoer wasn’t the flashy hire of a Sark, nor did he seem like a championship-level hire of a Coach Pete. It almost felt like settling, at least it did to me. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong!
He undid all the damage Jimmy Lake wrought in his first year. We were one stumble away from playing in the Pac-12 championship game, but we still finished the year 11-2, and more importantly, were able to retain our most important core players who were eligible to return.
Now, we’re heading into 2023 as legitimate playoff contenders. We just have to find a way to make it through the conference first.
The tricky part of this whole deal is our schedule. It’s considerably more challenging than it was last year, when we didn’t get a chance to play either Utah nor USC (the two teams who played in the conference title game). You can take that one of two ways: maybe it was a blessing, because if we lost them, we might not have gotten to double-digit wins; on the flipside, we weren’t able to take them down a peg and insert ourselves into that Pac-12 title game.
The 2022 Huskies were a little iffy in the first half of the season, especially on defense. Key injuries may have cost us against UCLA and ASU. We definitely gelled in the second half, securing huge wins over Oregon State and on the road against the Ducks. We’ll never know how we might’ve fared against the Utes or Trojans, but if those games would’ve taken place late, I know we would’ve given them a run for their money.
This year, we miss out on a possibly-rebuilding UCLA and an exciting (but still questionable) Colorado team with a brand new roster under Deion Sanders. In their place, we get Utah at home, and USC on the road. We get Oregon at home, but play the Beavers on the road. And it’s hard to imagine Michigan State will be any more mediocre than they were last year; we get them on the road as well, which should be a tough test.
Even our opener on Saturday came against a Boise State team that won 10 games last year. It would’ve been foolish to overlook them, and to their credit, the Huskies took care of business (even if it took an entire quarter to get going).
The Broncos owned the first quarter, holding a 6-0 lead (missing an extra point). After an awesome opening return to midfield, the Huskies tried to get their running game going, to no avail. The pass protection was also a little sketchy, leading me to wonder if the O-Line might be in worse shape than previously thought.
But, then we just abandoned the rushing attack altogether, to magnificent results. The Huskies won the second quarter 28-6 and the rout was on. 56-19 was the final score. Michael Penix threw for 29/40 for 450 yards and 5 TDs. Rome Odunze caught 7 balls for 132 yards and a TD. Ja’Lynn Polk caught 3 for 101 and a TD. Jalen McMillan caught 8 for 95 and 2 TDs (he also ran for a 19-yard TD).
It’s a little concerning that the run game never got going, not even late when the game was sealed up. But, this isn’t an offense that’s meant to depend on a Ground & Pound philosophy. It’s gonna go where Penix and these receivers take it. And, based on what we’ve seen across 14 games, I think that can be pretty damn far.
The defense wasn’t elite, but it also wasn’t overwhelmed. I’d like to see more than one sack in a game we win by 37 points, but we did manage a couple of picks. There’ll be games where this side of the ball picks us up and holds games close, but I would say this is a unit that is also going to go where Penix and the receivers take it. This D is meant to play with a lead. Force teams into obvious passing situations, use our talent up front to make things difficult on opposing quarterbacks, and hopefully generate enough turnovers to turn these games into laughers.
If we can manage to win on the road against the Spartans, it should be smooth sailing until mid-October, when we play Oregon. There should be another couple of soft landings before we get to the juggernaut portion of the schedule: weeks 9-11 at USC, vs. Utah, and at Oregon State. That will likely decide who takes control of this conference. We close at home against the Cougs, who might also be ranked by the time we get there.
Anything worse than 10-2 would be a disappointment. But, it’ll almost certainly require a one-loss season if we want to guarantee a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. I think we CAN get there, but that’s going to take a good amount of luck, and a good amount of winning in close games.
Gun to my head, the safe money is on the Huskies not making it to the playoffs. That being said, none of the contenders have it too terribly easy this year. Especially if Colorado ends up being amazing (and not just a week 1 flash in the pan). That’s probably the best thing the Huskies have going for them is the fact that the Pac-12 is fucking loaded in its final go-around. You’d have to be willfully ignorant or outright biased to not give these teams their due (which, this IS college football, so of course that’s what’s going to happen). Any team, from Washington to Oregon to USC to Utah to even Oregon State has a chance to win this league. And if Colorado is at least entertaining? Maybe knocks off a contender or two? All the better. Hell, if they’re legitimately good, and we’re talking about half the conference being elite, that’s going to bring nothing but rays upon rays of sunshine on the rest of these schools. I expect we’ll be well represented in the major bowl games this season.
Even though the safe bet is to short the Huskies, I dunno. This feels different. It feels special. A lot of the Coach Pete seasons felt special too, until we lost a game and all hope felt lost. This time? Who knows? Maybe 10-2 gets us there, if we manage to win the right tiebreakers. This is certainly a situation where the conference beats up on itself, which isn’t great for our playoff hopes. But, if we can get a team through with only 2 losses, I would hope we’re recognized for what we are: among the best teams in the nation.
What’s great about this Husky team is not only that it’s loaded at the skill positions, but it’s also an offensive system that should be foolproof. We should never be out of any game, even if we give up an early lead here and there. As long as the defense is just good enough to not give up a score on every single drive, we should have an opportunity to win every game. It’s just a matter of executing, and catching the breaks as they come.
I’m predicting 10-2 and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The homer in me is predicting 11-1, a conference title, and a spot in the College Football Playoffs. From there, we’ll put a scare in the hearts of every uppity Big 10 school that thinks they’re better than us.
Bow Down To Washington, motherfuckers. Because we’re coming for you!