For Washington Huskies fans familiar with Rose Bowl appearances and sold-out stadiums and all the other trappings of the program’s charmed run under coach Don James, the 2017 season might feel something like those halcyon days.
Last season, en route to their first conference championship in 16 years, the Huskies stomped their fiercest rivals, Washington State and Oregon, by a combined score of 115-38. But they lost to USC, one of two defeats – the other to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals – that blemished what was still a breakthrough season.
The Trojans, of course, did not win the league, or even their division, losing the South to Colorado despite beating the Buffaloes head-to-head; early-season losses to Stanford and Utah doomed them to second place. But they are the preseason favorites to claim the Pac-12 title in 2017, narrowly edging Washington, the predicted Pac-12 North champion, in the media voting.
USC debuted at No. 4 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll. The Huskies are ranked No. 7. And they aren’t scheduled to play each other in the regular season, all the more reason they are predicted to meet in the Pac-12 title game with a potential playoff berth on the line.
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Could this season remind of the Huskies-Trojans back-and-forth that helped define the James era? During James’ UW tenure, from 1975 to 1992, the Trojans – coached by John Robinson, then Ted Tollner, then Larry Smith – won seven conference championships. The Huskies won six. UCLA won four. Only one other conference team, Arizona State in 1986, played in a Rose Bowl during that 18-year span.
Both UW and USC won back-to-back-to-back conference titles, and they did it consecutively, USC reigning from 1987-89, the Huskies from 1990-92. Four times when USC won the league title in that span, the Huskies finished in at least a tie for second place. Three times when UW won it, the Trojans were at least tied for runner-up. Some of UW’s most memorable victories – the wind-and-rain game in 1981, “All I saw was purple” in 1990 – came against the Trojans.
The rivalry fizzled in the mid-and-late ’90s as both programs waffled between average and good; they tied on the field and tied for the Pac-10 title in 1995, yes, and USC won the tiebreaker to snag a Rose Bowl appearance, but that was the Trojans’ only title that decade. UW didn’t win another one until 2000.
You know the rest: while USC won at least a share of the conference title from 2002-08, the Huskies failed to make a bowl game from 2003-09. UW did beat the Trojans in 2009, 2010 and 2015, but didn’t come close to even a division title until winning the Pac-12 last season. USC hasn’t won the conference since 2008, but appears fully recovered from sanctions and, like UW, is back among the nation’s elite.
Heisman Trophy candidates quarterback each offense; Sam Darnold for the Trojans, Jake Browning for the Huskies. Browning finished sixth in the Heisman voting last season, won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and set a school record for touchdown passes. Darnold took over the starting job in Week 4, lost only one game and led USC to a thrilling, 52-49 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
When the teams met at Husky Stadium on Nov. 12 – UW still unbeaten at 9-0 – the Trojans controlled both lines of scrimmage and won, 26-13. USC had lost three of its first four games, but it was obvious the Trojans were regaining the form of a contender.
“They’ve got that elite talent that’s well-coached,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “The margin for error is just – they’re not going to give you anything. You’ve got to earn it. And then one little mistake can cost you, where if you’re playing a team that maybe is not as talented, you can overcome that.”
From 1975 to 1992, the Trojans won seven conference championships. The Huskies won six. UCLA won four. Only one other conference team, Arizona State in 1986, played in a Rose Bowl during that 18-year span.
(Unsurprisingly, Petersen gives little thought to USC not being on the schedule: “I don’t even really think like that. I don’t think, ‘oh, I’m glad we don’t play these guys,’ or ‘I wish we played these guys.’”)
But the schedule is a favorable one. UW’s toughest game will likely be a Friday-night matchup at preseason-No. 14 Stanford on Nov. 10. The Huskies play UCLA, Oregon, Utah and Washington State at home. On the road, aside from Stanford: rebuilding Colorado, an Oregon State team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013, and an Arizona State team coming off of two losing seasons. Nonconference games at Rutgers and home against Montana and Fresno State should provide little challenge.
USC misses Washington and Oregon, gets Stanford, Utah and UCLA at home, and its toughest road trip is to Washington State. That, too, is the path of a prohibitive division favorite.
UW stormed through the North last season, beating its five division opponents by a combined score of 266-88. Stanford and Washington State should be the Huskies’ chief competition this year. Oregon hopes for a quick turnaround under first-year coach Willie Taggart. Oregon State and California are a ways from challenging.
I don’t even really think like that. I don’t think, ‘oh, I’m glad we don’t play these guys,’ or ‘I wish we played these guys.’
Huskies coach Chris Petersen on not playing USC in the regular season
Utah, ranked 25th, is probably the second-best team in the South. Colorado lost a lot from its South-division championship team last season. UCLA still hasn’t figured it out under coach Jim L. Mora. There is little reason to think Arizona State or Arizona is a threat.
So no, it would not be surprising if, in the end, USC and Washington meet to decide the conference championship – just as they seemed to so many times when the Huskies were at their best.
1. Washington (No. 4 nationally, 12-2 in 2016): Pegging the Huskies as a post-hype team a year early wasn’t a good idea last summer. They were every bit a top-five team in 2016, and while there were some NFL defections, Washington could be even better this year. That’s why the pick here is for them to return to the College Football Playoff.
The offense, which was stifled by Alabama in the national semifinals, brings back quarterback Jake Browning and star tailback Myles Gaskin. The defense is led by a veteran linebacking corps, with Azeem Victor the best of the bunch. Maybe Washington doesn’t get the better of Southern California if they meet in the league title game, but no one should be surprised if it heads to the playoff again this year.
2. Stanford (No. 18, 10-3): After five 10-win seasons in six years, Cardinal fans might be growing accustomed to success under Coach David Shaw. That sentiment might surface again this year as Stanford brings back eight starters on each side of the ball.
The Cardinal is unapologetically old-school, and that means its defense will stop the run and force teams to throw. On offense, the team will rumble for 200 yards per game and ask the quarterback to do what he can. In this year’s case, it will mean unleashing efficient senior Keller Chryst, who recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in December’s Sun Bowl in time to earn a starting nod for this week’s opener against Rice. Bank on another 10 victories, and maybe more if things break right.
3. Washington State (No. 26, 8-5): Somehow, a Mike Leach team is something of a forgotten entity. Chalk that up to sharing a division with Oregon, Stanford and Washington. At the same time, the Cougars were a victory away from reaching the Pac-12 title game last year and have Luke Falk, a quarterback well-versed in Leach’s Air Raid teachings, back for his senior year.
Perhaps more intriguing is that Washington State has settled into being a decent - not great, but more than adequate most weeks - defensive team over the past two seasons. The Cougars have developed a rushing attack they don’t always use much, but that isn’t completely inert, either. It’s a relatively balanced bunch, especially by Leach’s standards, and could get off to a good start with its first five games at home.
4. Oregon (No. 34, 4-8): Willie Taggart, the Ducks’ first head coaching hire who wasn’t promoted from within since 1976, takes over a program that went from the national title game with a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback to 4-8 in a span of two years. Sounds a lot like Auburn from 2010-12, and remember the Tigers went back to the national title game in 2013 with a new coach.
Two conundrums exist in Eugene that are likely to prevent that sort of a turnaround. One, the Ducks’ defense was dreadful last year, and how much progress is realistic? Two, is there anywhere near as much talent in the program as there was when Chip Kelly exited after the 2012 season? Probably enough to reverse last year’s record, but an instant return to Pac-12 contention is a stretch.
5. Oregon State (No. 73, 4-8): The parallels between 2016 Oregon State and 2015 Colorado are there if you’re looking for them. The ’15 Buffaloes went from 2-10 to 4-9, but dropped five games by eight points or less. The ’16 Beavers went from 2-10 to 4-8, but dropped three games by a touchdown or less.
Oregon State’s problem? It resides in the wrong neighborhood in the Pac-12. Another? It doesn’t have the quarterback stability Colorado enjoyed entering last season. The Beavers should be more competitive, and a bowl trip for the first time since 2013 is possible. Nonetheless, they’re not a good bet to replicate Colorado’s leap from a year ago.
6. California (No. 87, 5-7): Well, now what? The Golden Bears pushed their chips in on chucking the ball around and not worrying much about defense under Sonny Dykes, and it got them a 19-30 record over four years with one bowl bid and one No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft (Jared Goff). Justin Wilcox takes over as a first-time head coach seeking new starters at quarterback and running back, and with a defense that was the second-worst in FBS at defending the run last year. There’s lots to figure out, and coming anywhere close to reaching six victories would make this a solid debut season.
1. Southern California (No. 6, 10-3): Is the wait for the next great Trojan team finally over? Some might argue it ended last year, and it’s tough to dispute that Southern Cal was probably one of the three or four best teams in the country after the start of October. But September counted, too, and that’s why the Trojans were part of a classic Rose Bowl rather than in the playoff.
Clay Helton’s second full season is promising not just because of quarterback Sam Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones, but also because the defense is moving closer to the standards set by the Trojans a decade ago. The schedule helps, too; Stanford, UCLA and Utah all visit the Coliseum, and Washington is nowhere to be found.
2. Utah (No. 22, 9-4): It’s fair to wonder whether anyone has won 28 games more quietly over the last three years than Utah. Other than Joe Williams’s return from retirement to rush for 1,407 yards, the Utes didn’t generate much attention last year even though they did produce their most yards since joining the Pac-12.
The reason? It might be that Utah’s predictability works against it. The Utes were driven by the same sort of solid and consistent defense they seemingly always are. Utah isn’t fancy, but it is as sound and effective as anyone. It will win another eight or nine games this year and make a case for an end-of-season ranking . . . again.
3. Colorado (No. 30, 10-4): The Buffaloes showed some signs of life in 2015, but who saw a 10-win season coming? And it’s not as if there was any shame in falling to the likes of Michigan, Southern California, Washington and Oklahoma State. Most impressive was a stingy defense masterminded by Jim Leavitt that repeatedly stifled Pac-12 foes last year.
Well, eight starters are gone from that defense. So is Leavitt, who landed on Taggart’s staff at Oregon. Those might be bigger departures than quarterback Sefo Liufau, which is saying something because the school’s career passing leader started for much of the past four years. Steven Montez takes over for Liufau, and he’ll lead an offense that needs to do more if the Buffs are to come close to last year’s production.
4. UCLA (No. 37, 4-8): A healthy Josh Rosen will certainly help the Bruins, but it’s worthwhile to remember they weren’t dominant even while he was on the field in 2016. That’s not to say Rosen isn’t a quality quarterback. It’s just that he’s not a panacea for all of UCLA’s problems.
Most of those issues are on the offensive side, where the Bruins owned the second-worst rushing attack in the country. The defense improved a bit under defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, but any progress this year’s team makes is probably going to stem from a rebound on offense.
5. Arizona State (No. 61, 5-7): The school chose not to exercise an option year in Coach Todd Graham’s contract, which is hard to quibble with after consecutive losing seasons. The Sun Devils collapsed after a 5-1 start, and an abysmal pass defense that yielded 357.4 yards per game, most in the country, is an obvious culprit. Offensive regression didn’t help.
A recovery on offense is a reasonable expectation with a healthy Manny Wilkins back at quarterback (assuming he continues to fend off Alabama transfer Blake Barnett). There might not be an easy fix for that pass defense, and facing the likes of Browning, Darnold and Rosen probably isn’t going to help.
6. Arizona (No. 81, 3-9): It’s been downhill since the 2014 Pac-12 title game, when the Wildcats were blown out by Oregon. A month later, they lost to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, then went 7-6 in 2015 before last year’s cratering. There’s plenty of blame to go around; the offense couldn’t score despite an able running game, and the defense couldn’t stop much of anything.
Defensive concerns linger into this preseason, too. The line is undersized, and linebackers light on experience. It’s hard to see a path to six victories, and a loss to Houston in the season’s second week would narrow things considerably. It’ll be curious to see if there’s any desire to swap coaches if Rich Rodriguez oversees a second losing season in a row.
– The Washington Post