Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 3 Washington.
In a strange departure from our regularly scheduled programming, we bring you a top-10 Deadspin 25 team that does not suck.
Chris Petersen is in his third year as Washington head coach. In his first two seasons, he put together a decent 16-12 record, good enough to earn the program a pair of bowl bids. The challenges facing Petersen when he assumed the position were ones that consisted of maintenance and improvement, not a full-fledged revival. See, prior to his disastrous USC run, Steve Sarkisian spent his time in Seattle completing the ground-up work. After an 0-12 run in 2008 signaled the end of the Tyrone Willingham era, Sarkisian came in and helped the program back on its feet, cranking out a trio of 7-6 campaigns and ending on a 8-4 2013 season that saw the team finish in the top 25.
All the while, Petersen was working his magic at Boise State, crafting the Broncos as a powerhouse Group of Five program and national darling. When Sarkisian left, Petersen got his shot at the Power Five and made the jump. Now, in Year Three, folks—Deadspin readers included—seem to believe another jump is in store. To that I say: we shall see.
In 2015, the Huskies boasted talented playmakers on both sides of the ball; that talent was just on the young side, with rookies Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin headlining the team’s offense at quarterback and running back, respectively. Washington closed the season fifth in the Pac-12 North, posting a 7-6 record, with the six losses coming by an average 8.8 points. On paper, it wasn’t a great campaign—the season certainly wasn’t a wash, but the Huskies basically beat the teams they were supposed to, lost to better teams, and finished with a strong bowl victory over Southern Mississippi. From afar, the Huskies seemed to be in a fine spot to improve from a next-to-last place division finish.
Then the season ended, and people began to take a closer look at just what the six-loss squad was able to accomplish. The Huskies held teams to 18.8 points per game, ranked 13th in the nation; their rush defense ranked 19th overall; while neither their rushing or aerial offensive threats cracked the top-40, it was clear they possessed budding stars. And thus, the darling of the Pac-12 became the long-shot Playoff team of choice for writers and sports fans across the nation. Looking at Washington’s roster, I completely understand the optimism being granted to the Huskies—this team returned key players at the skill positions and already had a top-20 defensive front largely anchored by sophomores and juniors. I’m not sure I’d rank them as a top-10 team right off the bat due to numerous areas of weakness yet to be dealt with, but hey, the Deadspin faithful have spoken.
On offense, Browning returns to the driver’s seat after a freshman season in which he completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards, 16 scores, and 10 interceptions. He wasn’t great against the Pac-12's top-7 pass defenses—in games against Cal, Washington State, and USC, he averaged a completion percentage of 60.2 while throwing for zero touchdowns and three interceptions. Like any rookie Power Five signal-caller, Browning likely learned a great deal and will do better against capable defenses in his second go-round; he better, or else Washington is going to be stuck in the middle of the pack yet again.
Myles Gaskin is back at running back after a phenomenal freshman campaign and will be backed up by fellow sophomore Jomon Dotson. Out wide, John Ross III, Dante Pettis, and Chico McClatcher will hold down the fort for Browning. Ross III missed last season with an ACL tear; if games against Idaho and Rutgers count (they probably shouldn’t), Ross III seems to be back in peak form, having already scored four touchdowns on 12 receptions. The speedster reportedly recorded a 4.25(!) 40-yard dash this spring, so having someone on the outside that can push those safeties back should open the running game for Gaskin and create some more space for Pettis, McClatcher, and Brayden Lenius, who is currently serving a three-game suspension but was a projected starter. Ross is also a dangerous return man for the Huskies and has already taken one back this season, a 92-yarder against the Scarlett Knights.
The Huskies have the luxury of returning seven players from last season’s defense, which was tops in the Pac-12 and, barring a drastic drop-off, I’d expect the same again this season. Washington runs a 4-3 scheme under defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski; their front seven is among one of the best units in the nation. Up front, Elijah Qualls is set to be a 321-pound anchor for defensive line after recording 4.5 sacks last season at the tackle position. He’ll be joined by fellow tackle Greg Gaines and ends Joe Mathis and Vita Vea—Vea already has 2.5 sacks to his name to lead the Huskies.
Linebacker Azeem Victor led the team in tackles last season with 95 and is joined by Keishawn Bierria and Psalm Wooching (great, great name). The unit lost a pair of disruptive forces in seniors Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, but with Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett also thrown in, the group has enough talent among its starters and reserves to make up for the lost 28.5 TFLs.
While I’ve sung the praises of the front seven, the defensive backfield may be the most crucial unit for the Huskies this season. Already, they’ve allowed an average 193.0 yards through the air in their first two games—that’s certainly not the 226.5 they were giving up last season, but then again, they haven’t even played anything close to a Pac-12 aerial attack yet. That being said, their touchdown-interception ratio of 1:2 seems to suggest those yards are going to continue excluding scoring throws. Last season, the group ranked ninth in the nation with 11 allowed scores and 23rd with 15 picks. The group is led by safety Budda Baker, whose got the burners to hang with any deep threat in the nation. JoJo McIntosh will line up next to Baker, while Sidney Jones, Kevin King, and Darren Gardenhire will do their best to lock down the deadly receivers in their conference.
Gaskin closed the season as exceptionally as any other back in the nation in 2015, reeling off four-straight 100-yard games and scoring seven of his 14 rushing touchdowns in that time frame. He saved his best for last, running for 181 yards and four scores against Southern Mississippi, which had held running backs to 13 touchdowns all season up to that point. Aside from Christian McCaffrey, Gaskin possesses some of the most patient and vicious lateral moves in the Pac-12, a fairly rare feature among young running backs. Gaskin’s shuffles at the line of scrimmage give way to an excellent burst that allows him to hit the second level with ease, where his 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame holds up surprisingly well against linebackers. He still runs in the same conference as Kalen Ballage and McCaffrey, so he’s not going to get the headlines they do, but he’s still someone you should absolutely know and make time to watch.
Jury’s out on this one. We won’t have a clue until the Huskies take on Arizona. Considering the Wildcats were average at best last season and haven’t proven otherwise this season, this game will just show us how the Huskies can play against teams that aren’t Rutgers, Idaho, or Portland State. The Sept. 30 clash with Stanford is the earliest game on their schedule I would refer to as a proper measuring stick for this question. The Huskies have talent and are well-coached, but I’m going to need to actually see them punch up and bring down more than one ranked team if I’m going to say they’re playoff-bound.
Chris Petersen rightfully gets a lot of love from college football fans for what he did at Boise State; as far as I can tell, his biggest mistake there was recruiting Sam Ukwuachu and getting himself tangled in Art Briles’s shitshow. There’s a lot of murky back-and-forth there, and while I’m inclined to believe Briles and Baylor fucked that up, for now, I’m going to defer to the default Power Five answer: yes.
Sept. 3: Rutgers
Sept. 10: Idaho
Sept. 17: Portland State
Sept. 24: @ Arizona
Sept. 30: Stanford
Oct. 8: @ Oregon
Oct. 22: Oregon State
Oct. 29: @ Utah
Nov. 5: @ Cal
Nov. 12: USC
Nov. 19: Arizona State
Nov. 25: @ Washington State