In the wake of a drubbing so comprehensive it gave second-guessers no chance to second guess, optimism is not a natural first response.
But now that a lid has been put on a pretty terrific season for the Washington Huskies, it seems harsh to dwell on their disappointing performance against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Washington doubled its win total in 2016 — from six to 12 — and probably will finish No. 3 in the national rankings.
This is a big-time program again, and there’s a lot to like about all that awaits Chris Petersen’s team next season, beginning with enhanced expectations.
“The bar has been moved forward in that locker room, and they get that,” Petersen said Saturday. “So they got a taste of it. I think that can change your mindset.
“But it’s not like when we go back work, we’re the same team.”
Fair point. The Huskies’ most vaunted strength — a defensive backfield built around NFL prospects — faces an overhaul. Safety Budda Baker likely has played his last college game, as has cornerback Sidney Jones, a fellow junior. The other starting cornerback, senior Kevin King, departs as well.
Up front, junior defensive tackle Elijah Qualls will find it difficult to put his pro aspirations on hold. Same with Vita Vea, a draft-eligible sophomore.
Baker, Jones, King, Qualls and Vea: That’s basically half of the first-team defense, out the door.
But there’s a long-term benefit that balances the short-term frustration of losing players to the next level. High-school recruits see Washington as a destination that exposes their talent.
Offering an opportunity for athletes to compete for national championships while putting them on the NFL radar screen — doing this in a major media market, home of what might be college football’s most spectacular scenic backdrop — makes for a convincing recruiting pitch.
Besides, it’s not as though the defense will have to be restocked from scratch. Azeem Victor, the linebacker who came to define the Huskies’ heart and soul before breaking his leg on Nov. 12, has committed to a senior season. He’ll be on the Butkus Award watch list.
Speaking of accolades, quarterback Jake Browning will open 2017 as a Heisman Trophy candidate. That Alabama transformed UW’s record-breaking passer into a dink-and-dimer — 38 attempts, 150 yards — looms as a source of motivation.
Browning’s failure to throw the ball away Saturday, with a little more than a minute remaining in the first half, led to the pick-six interception that turned a 10-7 deficit into 17-7. Taking a sack in the throes of a blitz, Browning learned, is not the worst thing that can happen during a football game.
Floating the ball into the hands of a runaway-train linebacker, presented an unimpeded path to the end zone, is the worst thing that can during a football game.
Browning will never be the life of the party, but not every college student yearns to deliver clever punch lines around punch bowls. Some college students are quarterbacks prone to bristle about their mistakes.
Browning was bristling the moment his pass was picked, and he’ll be bristling for, oh, the next eight months or so.
Jake Browning threw 43 touchdown passes in 2016, and he’ll return with a vengeance. For a team looking to recover from the blahs of taking a beating in the national semifinal game, there are worse scenarios.
The 2017 schedule appears to set the Huskies up for another berth in the College Football Playoff. Their non-conference opener is at Rutgers, which went 2-10 this season. The last of two non-conference home games is against Fresno State, which went 1-11. Between Rutgers and Fresno State is Montana, out of the Big Sky Conference, otherwise known as Not the Biggest Guy Conference.
The Pac-12 phase of the schedule is favorable: Home games against California, Oregon, UCLA, Utah and Washington State, road games at Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State and Stanford.
Note the absence of USC. The Trojans proved to be the quicker, stronger and tougher team in their 26-13 victory over Washington this past November, and it can be presumed they’re staked for a rematch in the 2017 conference championship game.
Sorry for getting ahead of myself here. There’s work to do.
“It’s a balance between knowing they can do some special things,” Petersen said of his returning players, “if we kind of go back to our humble roots of starting over.”
Petersen sees humble roots. I see a powerhouse putting its 12-0 record on the line against USC. Either way, the bar has been raised to a height where excellence is anticipated, and every dream is feasible.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath