John McGrath

Washington Huskies, with elevated expectations for 2017, have to win and win big

UW coach Chris Petersen enters the 2017 season under much different circumstances after the Huskies’ advance to the College Football Playoffs semifinal game in 2016.
UW coach Chris Petersen enters the 2017 season under much different circumstances after the Huskies’ advance to the College Football Playoffs semifinal game in 2016.

Washington kicks off its season Friday amid the kind of expectations that haven’t captivated college football fans in the Seattle area since the Sonics were entrenched at KeyArena and the Seahawks were en route to Southern California.

The Huskies didn’t evolve into a national powerhouse overnight, though it seems that way. A year ago, they were heavy favorites to beat a bad Rutgers team in the opener – they delivered, and then some – but the long-range forecast was calling for one of those middle-of-the-road bowl games that changes its name more often than a crook on the run.

The writers and broadcasters ranked Washington No. 14 in their preseason poll, while the coaches put them at 18. Head coach Chris Petersen was drawing praise for overseeing a more stable program than predecessor Steve Sarkisian did, but Petersen’s clock-management mistakes suggested the former Boise State coach might be in over head in the Pac-12.

His two-year record, in any case, was a mediocre 15-14.

Four months later, the Huskies not only were facing defending-champion Alabama in the semifinal playoff game, they were leading, 7-0, producing some nervous faces in the the overwhelmingly partisan crowd. When the Tide finally prevailed in the second half, it underscored how far the Huskies had come – and how far they still had to go.

Washington, in hindsight, arrived at football’s version of the Final Four a year early. Liberated from the pressure of dominating inferior opponents while excelling against the strong ones, the Huskies enjoyed the many benefits of life off the radar screen.

Those benefits no longer apply.

Washington is favored to win by 27 points Friday, and though Petersen insists he pays no heed to a distraction as untoward as a betting line – and I believe him – the way of the world in college football works like this: Point spreads mirror public perception. If the eighth-ranked Huskies beat Rutgers by, say, two touchdowns instead of four, they could fall out of the top 10 in the AP poll. Given the soft non-conference schedule awaiting them (home games against Montana and Fresno State), regaining top-10 status could take weeks.

To add a word to the late Raiders owner Al Davis’ favorite saying: “Just win big, baby.”

A few minutes after the Huskies walked off the Georgia Dome turf with a 12-2 record, Petersen acknowledged the obvious.

“The bar has been moved forward in that locker room, and they get that,” he said. “They got a taste of it. That can change your mindset. But it’s not like when we go back to work, we’ve got the same team.”

When the Huskies went back to work, their defensive backfield was absent Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Budda Baker, three future NFL players. Gone, too, were stellar defensive tackle Elijah Qualls and breakaway burner John Ross.

Teams losing such impact talents don’t often resume in stride, unless those teams are the usual suspects: Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Michigan, Clemson, Oklahoma. Washington has vaulted into that elite group.

Having assembled four recruiting classes rooted in his modesty-before-all-else philosophy, Petersen has put together a roster with depth at every position group. There are no weak links requiring his assistants to mix and match, hoping the coaches on the other sideline aren’t privy to the vulnerabilities.

All-America candidates abound, although a deftly balanced pass-run offense could reduce the gaudy individual statistics associated with that honor. When the huddle breaks with quarterback Jake Browning behind center and Myles Gaskin or Lavon Coleman behind Browning, only one ball will be on the field.

Problems, problems.

With USC out of the mix, the conference schedule is shaping up as an artist’s conception of a project called “Perfect Regular Season.”

Potential toe-stubs? Sept. 23 at Colorado, where the Buffaloes will be used to the altitude and brimming with attitude after the thumping they took from the Huskies in the 2016 conference-championship game. Another road game, Nov. 10 at Stanford, figures the Cardinal to be exacting revenge from its 44-6 defeat last season at Husky Stadium.

“Survive-and-advance” will be the motto for that one, as style points won’t matter.

First things first, and Rutgers is first. The school’s athletic department is marketing the opener as “The War at the Shore.” Rutgers’ landlocked campus in Piscataway, New Jersey, is several miles from anything resembling a shore, but why be tethered to a map?

No matter. The only map pertinent to the Huskies on Friday is a field that’s 100 yards long and 53.5 yards wide.

Just win big, baby.