Eight seasons removed from that ghastly 0-12 season, the University of Washington football team (No. 8 AP, No. 7 coaches) has an opportunity to flip the worst into the best — a 12-0 regular season. That would duplicate the mark of the 1991 co-national champions, an outfit that pummeled its first 11 foes by a combined 461-101 before rolling Michigan 34-14 in the Rose Bowl.
Coached by Don James, the 1991 team featured 17 future NFL draft choices, including first-rounders DL Steve Emtman and DB Dana Hall in 1991 and OT Lincoln Kennedy in 1992. The group entered the Husky Hall of Fame en masse in 1997. Five players — Emtman (1999), Kennedy (2004), Napoleon Kaufman (2004), Dave Hoffman (2012) and Mario Bailey (2014) – were individually enshrined later.
While it’s difficult to imagine the 2017 Huskies becoming more dominant than the 1991 team that produced an average outcome of 41-9, the current club has a chance to be as successful.
Washington returns 15 of 22 starters from a national playoff semifinalist that led the Pac-12 in scoring offense (41.8 points per game) and scoring defense (17.7), putting up 40 or more points seven times, including 50 or more four times.
Three graduates from that team helped form one of the best secondaries in school history, a fact endorsed in the NFL draft when CB Kevin King (Packers), S Budda Baker (Cardinals) and CB Sidney Jones (Eagles) all went in the second round. They followed first-round pick WR John Ross (Bengals).
Rather than lament those losses, coach Chris Petersen, now that he’s seen his new secondary throughout camp, is fired up.
“I feel good,” Petersen said earlier this week. “Those kids are getting better every day and every week. We’re at that point where we have to go out there and see what we’ve got. But I’m excited to watch those guys compete. I’m proud of them.”
Junior Jordan Miller and redshirt freshman Byron Murphy will replace King and Jones at the corner spots for the season opener Friday at Rutgers. Junior JoJo McIntosh will start at Baker’s safety position, while sophomore Taylor Rapp, last year’s Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and MVP of the conference title game against Colorado, will start at the other safety slot.
Of the 50 players on the two-deep roster, only 10 are seniors. The bulk of the depth chart consists of juniors (20) and sophomores (15). Quality is at all key positions. Barring injuries, the Huskies should run the table against a favorable schedule that will unfold like this:
Friday at Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights lost in Husky Stadium 48-13 a year ago and finished the 2016 season 2-10, one of the losses a 78-0 obliteration at Michigan. According to one pundit, the main goal for Rutgers in 2017 is to avoid another 78-0 loss. Washington won’t win by 78, but is a 30.5-point road favorite.
Sept. 9 vs. Montana: Washington’s first meeting with the FCS Big Sky Grizzlies since 1951, Hugh McElhenny’s senior year. The Huskies haven’t lost to Montana since, well, 1920. Montana went 6-5 last year and its starting quarterback will probably be Reese Phillips, who won the job despite throwing four interceptions in Montana’s spring game.
Sept. 16 vs. Fresno State: After a 1-11 season a year ago, the Bulldogs’ first two road games are Alabama and Washington in consecutive weeks. That surely must have made new head coach Jeff Tedford, former head man at Cal (2002-12) and briefly an assistant at Washington, question his decision to take the job. Fresno State returns 10 starters from an offense ranked ninth-worst in college football last season.
Sept 23 at Colorado: The Buffaloes went 10-4 last year, but were whipped 41-10 by Washington in the Pac-12 title game, then 38-8 by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Pac-12 media picked Colorado to finish fourth in the South mainly because it will have to replace a four-year starter at quarterback (Sefo Liufau) and nine starters from a defense that ranked in the top 20 in FBS.
Sept. 30 at Oregon State: The Beavers, a 41-17 loser to the Huskies last year in Seattle, showed noticeable progress in 2016 by scoring three Pac-12 victories among its four wins. OSU closed out the season with a blowout of Arizona and a come-from-behind win over Oregon in the Civil War. Returning to a bowl game for the first time since 2013 is not an outlandish expectation, but beating Washington is. The Beavers opened the season with a 58-27 loss to Colorado State.
Oct. 7 vs. California: Jake Browning threw for 378 yards and six touchdowns in a 66-27 win a year ago in Berkeley. Cal has been picked to finish last in the North. Cal’s new head coach is Justin Wilcox, who served as Washington’s defensive coordinator in 2012-13 under Steve Sarkisian.
Oct. 14 at Arizona State: Washington romped over ASU last year, 44-18. The Sun Devils return nearly every player from the worst pass defense in college football last season (357 yards per game). Pac-12 media picked ASU to finish fifth in the South, ahead of only Arizona. ASU Thursday night beat New Mexico State, 37-31.
Oct. 28 vs. UCLA: The Bruins, not on Washington’s slate in 2016, cratered to 4-8 last year after winning at least eight games in each of the previous four seasons. UCLA’s flop led coach Jim Mora to remake his staff with four new hires, highlighted by offensive coordinator Jedd Fesch. QB Josh Rosen is healthy after a shoulder injury. Pac-12 media thinks UCLA will finish third in the South behind USC and Utah.
Nov. 4 vs. Oregon: Browning accounted for eight TDs (six throwing, two running) in UW’s 70-21 win last year in Eugene. The Ducks are coming off a 4-8 season and have a new head coach in Willie Taggart, whose principal task will be fixing a defense that ranked 126th in the nation in both scoring and total defense. Pac-12 media picks the Ducks to finish fourth in the North behind UW, Stanford and Washington State.
Nov. 10 at #14 Stanford: The Huskies blasted the Cardinal 44-6 and Stanford no longer employs DE Solomon Thomas or RB Christian McCaffrey, who went No. 3 and No. 8, respectively, in the first round of the NFL draft. Given Stanford’s No. 14 AP preseason ranking, plus the location in Palo Alto, this figures to be Washington’s toughest test of the regular season.
Nov. 18 vs. Utah: Washington defeated Utah 31-24 in Salt Lake City, but needed a 58-yard punt return for touchdown by Dante Pettis with 3:25 remaining to get the job done. Utah, 9-4, went unranked by the AP in its preseason poll, but came in 25th in the coaches poll, and opened its season Thursday night with a 37-16 win over FCS North Dakota.
Nov. 25 vs. #24 Washington State: Last year’s Apple Cup was one of the most anticipated in years, but the Huskies quickly took the suspense out of it, winning 45-17. The AP ranked WSU 24th, only the third time that the Cougars earned a preseason rank. Pac-12 media predicts a third-place finish.
As you can see, only Stanford, WSU and Utah are ranked. Seven foes are coming off losing years. The Huskies get UCLA and Washington State at home, and have only one road game (Stanford) after Oct. 14. They don’t play USC, the only team to beat them in the regular season last year, unless both advance to the Pac-12 title game.
Barring mass injuries and overconfidence, the Huskies are in good position for a second 12-0 season.