SALT LAKE CITY — Why is Washington a favorite in the Pac-12?
It’s a question asked by many around the conference, particularly given that the Huskies finished the 2015 season with a 7-6 record. The team’s only marquee win last year came against No. 17 USC in week 5, which ended the rocky tenure of then-head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Good, but not great.
So why all the hype surrounding the program? Is it the Chris Petersen effect — maybe hoping the BCS-busting Boise State mojo will translate to Petersen’s third season at Washington? Or is there something more that indicates a surge in preseason projections?
“People start jumping on bandwagons on whatever we’re talking about and you just shake your head and it’s like, really? That’s not even reality,” Petersen told Washington media. “So that’s what one of these things are. We’re 7-6, played no football games and now we’re ready to win the Super Bowl. It’s like, really? So go ahead.”
Well said, Chris!
The problem with speculation and preseason hype is that no games have been played, injuries haven’t been factored into the equation and rising or key players could take a step back. Even the best projections can fail if teams can't live up to what computer modules spit out. No algorithm can 100 percent predict actual outcome, but it can provide a framework — an educated guess.
ESPN’s Football Power Index, which is a measure of team strength, ranks the Huskies 13th in the country and gives the program a projected win-loss record of 9.3-3.1. Brian Fremeau, an ESPN Insider and analytics guru, has the Huskies as a favorite in 10 games this season using his FEI Rating system, which factors in matchups and adjusts for home-field advantage.
So why is Washington favored? It all starts with the defense.
There’s no question Washington’s defense is worthy of praise. The Huskies, right along with Stanford and Utah, make it nearly impossible for opposing teams to find the end zone on a consistent basis. Last season, Washington led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense, holding opponents to 18.8 points per game and 351.8 yards per game, respectively. Additionally, Washington led the conference in red zone defense, holding teams to 79.5 percent in the red zone.
Bill Connelly, analytics director and writer for SB Nation, had Washington ranked ninth last season in his Def. S&P+ model that factors in efficiency, field position, explosiveness, finishing drives and turnovers. More importantly, the Huskies defense only got better as the game went on: ranked 25th in first quarter S&P+, 16th in the second and third quarters and a staggering third in the fourth quarter.
That high ranking and ability to get better as the game progressed are likely to remain given the Huskies were loaded with freshmen and sophomore starters last season on defense, seven of whom are returning.
However, the Huskies lose their two most impactful players in linebackers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton. The tandem led the team in sacks and tackles for loss last season.
Although Petersen has a crop of athletes ready to replace Feeney and Littleton, it’s hard to project actual success until it becomes a reality on the field. However, it’s safe to assume the defense will continue to be a major force moving forward for the Huskies.
Offensively, though, the Huskies will rely on sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and his hopeful progression to the top of the Pac-12. As a freshman, Browning had a fair amount of success and ranked among the middle of the pack in the conference. His 246.3 average yards per game and 139.3 passer rating ranked him seventh in the Pac-12. However, Browning was 86th in passing S&P+ and his passer rating against the top-50 teams was 104.7. His rating improved to 188.2 against lesser opponents.
Collectively, the Huskies ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (30.6 pts/g), rushing offense (163.85 yds/g), passing offense (239.2 yds/g) and total offense (403.1 yds/g). Additionally, the Huskies struggled to get first downs and to convert on third (37.87 percent) and fourth downs (42.11 percent). Washington was 11th in the Pac-12 in first downs at 20.1 per game, and 10th in third and fourth down conversions.
As the game progressed, though, the offense improved, with the third quarter being its best — ranked 18th. But quickly that improved offense took a nosedive in the fourth quarter and ended with a 108th ranking in fourth quarter S&P+.
Much of the offensive struggles can be attributed to a freshman quarterback and freshman running back. However, the offense still managed a No. 37-ranked Off. S&P+. Unless the offense gets worse, that number will continue to improve and be a strong indicator of success, particularly when paired with its great defense.
Washington does have to win close games and get more than one quality win in a season to be a viable contender in the conference, though. Last season, Washington was 1-3 in one-possession games and was 1-6 against top 50 teams.
Although there remains a lot of questions about Washington, particularly its offense, the Huskies have the makings of a special season. Could Washington be a top college football program in 2016? Sure, and all indications appear to lead in that direction. However, it's always a tall task to live up to the hype with young players still developing.
Would it surprise anyone if Washington was a powerhouse team this season? No, but it's not just going to happen because of the preseason hype. There are legitimate areas Washington needs to improve upon to be ranked among the top of college football, but it appears reasonable for the Huskies to be able to do so.
Playoff bound or overhyped? You be the judge.