The 2014 Huskies were largely a Sark-based team in Coach Pete’s first season; we enjoyed a Sark-esque record when all was said and done. The 2015 Huskies were a real transition team, as more of Coach Pete’s players got on the field and the team as a whole became further acclimated to his way of doing things. In a lot of ways, 2015 looked like a bit of a step back, but it was entirely necessary to get the program to where it was in 2016, which was a huge step forward.
I can’t say enough good things about the 2016 Huskies, it was the most fun I’ve had following this team since 2000, and was almost certainly the best Husky team I’ve ever seen (keeping in mind that I was never a fan of the university during the Don James glory years). The 2016 Huskies were truly one of the best four football teams of the year and were rewarded as such with an invite to the College Football Playoff. Sadly, we were turned away by the buzzsaw that was the Alabama Crimson Tide, which only goes to reinforce the fact that we need to build up this program to become that type of buzzsaw.
So, what do we have to look forward to in 2017? Will the Huskies become that buzzsaw? Probably a little early in the process to say yes, but I think more than anything you just want to see them continue to take steps forward.
You can look at what we lost and have sort of a Glass Half Empty outlook. John Ross was drafted 9th overall. Sure, we’ve still got Dante Pettis, who looks ready to ascend to the #1 receiver spot on this team, but he’s no John Ross. That’s no knock against him, necessarily, because NOBODY is John Ross. That kind of speed is once in a generation. When you tack on Ross’ route running, versatility, and ability to make a catch in traffic, he was really the total package and may be the best receiver we’ve ever had in the program. So, you can look at the wide receiver position and say, “Yeah, there’s a decline there compared to last year.”
Then, obviously, you’ve got Kevin King, Budda Baker, and Sidney Jones all snapped up before the end of the second round. Our two starting cornerbacks and our starting safety, gone. I know the Huskies recruited the secondary pretty well, with lots of highly-rated guys set to step into starting roles, but we just won’t know how good those players are until we see them in game action.
Go on and on down the list of guys we graduated. Just a ton of talent walking out the door. In many ways, 2017 will be yet another transitional season. But, obviously different from how 2015 was a transitional year. This isn’t going from one head coach to another; this is essentially an evaluation of Coach Pete’s ability to constantly refurbish the depth of this team on the fly. Guys are going to graduate, guys are going to leave for the NFL after their Junior years; the mark of a truly great head coach is how he’s able to recruit guys who can jump in there and replace those former starters. I’m talking about recruiting Freshmen who are good enough to play right away, as well as guys who grow into starting-calibre players within a year or two at the most. It’s about always having the next wave of superstars champing at the bit. It’s about allowing the linemen and other undersized guys to grow and mature in the program so eventually they can be impact players. And so on and so forth.
Coach Sark and his team of recruiters were able to land some real whales for this school, but I don’t know if they were on the same level as Coach Pete and Co. Sark seemed to be more interested in recruiting the glamour positions; Coach Pete seems to be more interested in building up all positions, eliminating as many weaknesses as possible.
In that respect, yes, the 2017 Huskies might have fewer studs than they did in 2016, but it’s entirely possible that the overall quality of the team is improved, from 1 to 90, or however many players you’re allowed to have in college.
All of this comes with the caveat that injury luck is always the most important factor with any sports team.
The offensive line should be a real strength for the Huskies, more than any other year I can remember. The Huskies return the most experienced line in the conference, which should help our stud running backs – Coleman and Gaskin, among many of the younger guys looking to make names for themselves – as well as, obviously, our quarterback.
If there’s a questionmark, it’s Jake Browning. Is he healthy? Will he BE healthy when the season starts? I’ll never question his ability to study and work on his craft, but given his relative lack of size, can he STAY healthy for the long haul? He’s obviously a tough kid, playing on a shoulder that required surgery, but I don’t know if he’ll grow into a Heisman contender if he can’t stay on the field and at close to 100%.
If Browning isn’t healthy, how good are the guys behind him? The Huskies have recruited some pretty highly-rated quarterbacks recently, but are they too raw to step in this early into their careers? Will our season be totally derailed if Browning is limited?
Wide receiver is the position I’m most excited about. Obviously, I love Pettis and Chico McClatcher. But, I’ve also been hearing rumblings about some of these receivers who haven’t had a lot of playing time thus far. Recent recruits ready to make their marks. Should be interesting; hope they’ll get a lot of time to work with Browning on their timing and whatnot.
Along the D-Line, in spite of the loss of Elijah Qualls, there is still a significant amount of returning talent. Indeed, this unit should prove to be the strongest of the entire defense, and will likely have to get home with even more regularity than they did in 2016 (which they did at a pretty high clip) to help compensate for potential challenges in the back end.
Taylor Rapp, at safety, figures to be a force, and maybe the defensive MVP in 2017. We’ll need him to make that next step to superstar status if we want to maintain our defensive dominance in the Pac-12. He looked every bit as good as anyone I’ve seen towards the end of last season, so I’m pretty confident he’ll get the job done.
Bottom line is, the 2017 Huskies will be very good. Where they end up will largely depend on the schedule they play.
Last year, the Huskies were continuously killed for their weak schedule. It was the primary reason why people felt they had legitimate arguments against them making the College Football Playoff. I never bought into that, and if you’re like me – and wanted to throw your remote through the television every time some national pundit knocked the Huskies for this – GET READY FOR MORE OF THE SAME. Because, holy Jesus, does the 2017 schedule look like the creamiest cream puff wrapped in a cloud of cotton candy.
For the second year in a row, we kick off our season against Rutgers. It was a Home & Home series that was scheduled way back when Rutgers had a good football team, and you can’t very well just chop them off the schedule without facing a huge penalty. So, here we are. This time, on the road, which I suppose makes the game marginally more difficult, but my guess is Rutgers is once again going to be one of the worst teams in the Big 10.
The Huskies round out their non-conference schedule with home games against Montana (an FBS school) and Fresno State (who had all of 1 win in 2016). The Huskies could sit Browning for all three of those games and still easily walk away 3-0.
Every year, every Pac-12 school plays 9 conference games. I don’t know if this still sets us apart or not (I believe the SEC only plays 8 conference games, but they might be moving up to 9 or at least talking about it), but I think it’s a great argument when it comes to comparing our schools to those conferences who play 8 or less. I mean, let’s face it, every conference has their duds. And you can talk about Washington’s weak non-conference schedule all you want, but every power school schedules their share of powderpuffs. Regardless of how good or bad your in-conference opponent is, it’s still an in-conference opponent, and those games are more difficult and ultimately mean more.
Anyway, this year, the Huskies catch 5 home conference games and 4 road conference games (it alternates every year). Their conference schedule kicks off with 2 road games, though – at Colorado and at Oregon State – which means we get 5 of our final 7 games at home. Colorado should be a lot worse than they were last year, as the 2016 Buffaloes were very senior-heavy, and I highly doubt they recruit nearly as well as we do, so I can’t imagine the guys they’ve got coming up through the ranks are going to be as good as the guys they had last year. Oregon State is still in rebuilding mode (as they are seemingly every year), so I can’t imagine it’ll take much of an effort to get to 5-0 with this schedule.
Then, there’s a home game against Cal, who is working in a new head coach and ostensibly a new offensive system, so I can’t imagine that’s going to be a very close game. We follow that up with a road game against ASU, who I’m pretty sure we haven’t beaten on their home turf in over a decade. They were pretty sorry last year, and figure to be better this year; this could be a sneaky-tough game for the Huskies (who will have played 3 of 4 on the road when they’re finished with this one). I could see the Huskies winning this one in ugly fashion to get to 7-0.
That leads us to the real heart of the 2017 schedule. This year, we avoid USC and Arizona. By all accounts, USC is poised to be the top ranked Pac-12 team, at least going into the season. They might have the next #1 overall draft pick at the quarterback position in Sam Darnold, which is moderately terrifying. Obviously, that means even our conference schedule sees a huge downgrade in the eyes of the national pundits, by virtue of not playing the so-called best team in the Pac-12. And, say what you want about Arizona, but they’ve notoriously been a tricky team for us to play most years, and they return one of the more experienced offensive lines to boot. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them as a “surprise” team in the conference.
Getting back to the heart of the schedule, we follow up all those road games (and a BYE week tacked onto the end of it) with back-to-back home contests against UCLA and Oregon. UCLA is up there with Utah among the second tier teams in the Pac-12 South. They strike me as very much of an unknown, as they seem to recruit well every year, but ultimately produce poor results on the field. I’m sure they’ll give the Huskies everything they can, and I’d be seriously disappointed if we lost this one. Ditto Oregon, although they’re in something of a rebuild mode as well (albeit, starting with a much stronger base than OSU). I just think Washington has more talent than Oregon, period. As such, I see no reason why we won’t be 9-0 heading into what will likely be the most important game of the regular season.
At Stanford, Friday, November 10th, at 7:30pm on Fox Sports 1. The Cardinal fell from their perch as one of the top teams in the conference last year, and they obviously lost a lot of talent to graduation/the NFL Draft, so they’ll be breaking in a lot of key positions heading into 2017. They have a real bugger of a schedule through their own first 9 games of the season, with road games against USC, Utah, and Washington State, as well as home games against UCLA and Oregon. So, when I call this game on November 10th the “most important”, I really mean it’s the most important to the Washington Huskies, as it’s the one true landmine in an otherwise reasonable slate of football games.
I fully anticipate Stanford to have anywhere from 1-3 losses by the time they host the Huskies, but this is also a well-coached football team, who recruits like gangbusters. What does that mean? Well, even if they’re not competing for a Rose Bowl berth (which, for the record, I’m not necessarily taking off the table, as it’s entirely possible they are up there fighting for the Pac-12 North yet again), this is still a team that notoriously gets better as the season goes along. When you play Stanford, I think you’d much rather face them early in the season. Facing them in mid-November is sort of my worst nightmare, particularly with a schedule like this, where there doesn’t appear to be many tough games leading into this one. On paper, I think the Huskies are better than the Cardinal, but with this game being on the road, against a quality team, anything can happen. Let’s face it, I never would’ve thought the Huskies could’ve lost at home to USC last year, and look at what happened.
There’s a very reasonable chance that the game against Stanford is our last chance to make a big positive impression on the College Football Playoff Committee. Hell, it might be our ONLY chance, but that’s neither here nor there. After that, we wrap up the season with home games against Utah and Washington State. I think everyone is really sleeping on these two teams. Utah is always tough and really makes you earn every win against them. They could easily upset a team like USC and find themselves in the thick of things by the time they come to Seattle. And, as for the Cougs, they’ve definitely been written off after last year, losing two bullshit games early in the season, followed by their final three games (including the Holiday Bowl). While I agree that the Huskies very much SHOULD beat the Cougars, it’s still the Apple Cup, and weird things can always crop up. The Cougs obviously have Falk back, and if he can stay healthy, he’ll always give them a chance to win. And, their defense has always been underrated while over-producing under Mike Leach. So, you know, while these last two games aren’t necessarily as flashy as the road game against Stanford, we could still be talking about a couple of ranked teams when all is said and done.
The bottom line is, this is a 12-game schedule in which the Huskies could very easily run the table. There will obviously be challenges along the way, but I’ll just say that it wouldn’t necessarily be a shock to the system like it was last year. Odds are, the Huskies will likely lose 1 game. I’d say the odds are equal that they’d lose 2 games as they are to the Huskies winning them all, if that makes any sense. 1 loss SHOULD mean that the Huskies play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. And, assuming the Huskies face the Trojans in that game, we’re looking at a game that would not only get us into the Rose Bowl, but would get us back to the College Football Playoff.
I’ll say this, just to get it out of the way: any combination of scenarios where the Huskies finish with 1 loss, and that 1 loss is in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Huskies absolutely will not make the College Football Playoff – even if the Pac-12 South champion has more losses, and ultimately gets passed over as well. I’m a firm believer that the only way the Huskies are able to compensate for that schedule is if they beat an awesome team in the conference title game, a la last year. And even then, who knows?
A lot of this depends on what happens in the other conferences. What happens if there are two 1-loss teams in the SEC? Or an undefeated team and a 1-loss Alabama team? On top of whatever the Big 10 throws in there, Clemson, and the Oklahoma schools.
One thing the Huskies really have going for them is that they should start the season highly ranked. Top 10 or Top 15 at the worst. Now, imagine that team running the table through the regular season, then beating USC in the conference championship game! We might get to pick where we play in the College Football Playoff!
All of that is a long way off, of course. But, it’s still fun to think about as this baseball season drags on. I very much need football back in my life.