Chris Petersen knows his Washington program is close to climbing the college football mountaintop.
“We’re trying to get there. We have not arrived,” the 53-year-old coach said during Pac-12 Media Days. “We’ve made some progress, but it’s all hard work.”
Petersen is taking nothing for granted despite his program’s recent climb back into national relevance. The Huskies are one of just two Pac-12 teams to qualify for the College Football Playoff semifinals and they could be back again soon.
With a roster loaded with experience, Washington is No. 10 in Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel’s preseason 2018 college football rankings. Murschel ranked all 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff takes a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 129 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 10: Washington
Coach: Chris Petersen (37-17, entering fifth season; 129-29 overall)
2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 in the Pac-12 Conference; tied for first in North Division
Look back: On the heels of a record-breaking 2016 season, Washington was seen as one of the favorites in the Pac-12. The Huskies even earned their highest preseason ranking in two decades and jumped out to a 6-0 start. But a crushing loss to Arizona State — a double-digit underdog — and another road loss to Stanford opened the door for the Cardinal, not the Huskies, to return to the conference championship game.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: WR Dante Pettis, OL Coleman Shelton, TE Will Dissly, DT Vita Vea, LB Keishawn Bierria
Top returnees: QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, WR Aaron Fuller, TE Drew Sample, OL Trey Adams, OL Jesse Sosobee, OL Nick Harris, OL Kaleb McGary, LB Tevis Bartlett, DT Greg Gaines, LB Benning Potoa’e, LB Ben Burr-Kirven, DB Taylor Rapp, DB Jojo McIntosh, DB Austin Joyner
Strengths: Jake Browning returns with a chance to become one of the all-time great quarterbacks in Washington Huskies history. The senior already holds school records for touchdown passes in a season (43) and during a career (78) as well as career completion percentage (64 percent). He is 1,117 yards away from becoming the career passing leader.
“For any player that’s going to be that elite, it’s always about consistency,” Petersen said of Browning. “Jake plays really good football, and he’s going to play good football. But to be that elite player, I think when you think about an elite person, it’s just one of the things that would jump out is they’re so consistent in their behavior and what they do.”
Browning isn’t the only Husky rewriting record books. Tailback Myles Gaskin is 52 yards shy of surpassing Napoleon Kaufman as the career rusher leader after tallying more than 4,055 yards on just 686 career attempts. He already holds the career rushing touchdown mark (45).
Seven different players earned starts on the offensive line, including a pair of first team all-conference players — tackle Kaleb McGary and guard Coleman Shelton. McGary returns to anchor a line in 2018 that features center Nick Harris (13 starts in 2017), tackle Trey Adams (7) and guard Jesse Sosebee (8).
Safety Taylor Rapp is among a handful of all-conference selections returning for the Huskies’ defense. He also anchors one of the most experienced secondaries in the league, joining JoJo McIntosh (50 tackles) and Myles Brant (eight pass breakups).
Weaknesses: All-American Dante Pettis was Mr. Versatility for the Huskies’ offense, staring as both a receiver and returner. Finding a replacement for him won’t be easy. Chico McClatcher (128 yards) and Aaron Fuller (291 yards) will need to step up as will tight end Drew Sample (84 tackles).
Outlook: For the second time in the four-year history of the College Football Playoff, a team from the Pac-12 failed to qualify for the four-team semifinals.
Many pundits believe Washington is the league’s best candidate to earn a semifinal bid, placing high expectations on the Huskies.
Petersen responded, “That doesn’t mean anything to us. There’s no more expectations put on us from the day that we walked into that building. We expect to be good and win games, and that’s never changed. So because other people, you know, think that we might win some games, that doesn’t really change our mindset.”
Washington returns a league-best 13 senior starters, including playmakers like Browning, Gaskin and Burr-Kiven. That will come in handy when facing a schedule that features a tough opener in Atlanta against Auburn.
Sept. 1 vs. Auburn (Atlanta)
Sept. 9 North Dakota
Sept. 15 at Utah
Sept. 22 Arizona State
Sept. 29 BYU
Oct. 6 at UCLA
Oct. 13 at Oregon
Oct. 20 Colorado
Oct. 27 at California
Nov. 3 Stanford
Nov. 17 Oregon State
Nov. 23 at Washington State
2018 Orlando Sentinel College Football Preseason Rankings:
No. 11 Michigan State
No. 12 Penn State
No. 13 Virginia Tech