May 21, 2024

UCLA's Bolu Olorunfunmi (4) is brought down by Washington's Ben Burr-Kirven (25) and Jaylen Johnson in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Head coach Chris Petersen has a loaded Washington team that’s looking to make some noise in the Pac 12 and on a national scale. The team has grown accustomed to conference title or bust. There’s very few reasons why the 2018 Huskies can’t accomplish that feat. Senior signal-caller Jake Browning is still around and so is senior running back Myles Gaskin. Both are all Pac-12 performers and will be leaders on the offense. The offensive line is full of veterans and returns four starters up front, including all Pac-12 right tackle Kaleb McGary. The Huskies’ defense will be one of the best in the nation, hands down. With nine starters returning from a unit that finished No.1 in the Pac 12 in scoring, rushing and total defense, Washington should be able to slow down most of the nations’ best offensive attacks. This will be Petersens’ most talented team during his entire time in Seattle and they play smart and don’t make many mistakes as far as turnovers.

Team strengths: The defense. Washington has all Pac-12 performers at every level of the defense, led by Ben Burr-Kirven. The linebackers can flat-out fly all over the field to make plays and drop in coverage if need be. The secondary has five players with starting experience that combined for eight interceptions last season. Even with the departure of first round draft pick Vita Vea, nose tackle Greg Gaines is more than capable of plugging up the running holes and getting after the quarterback. The defense had 39 sacks last season, which was second-best in the conference. Make no mistakes about it, the Huskies’ defense will wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Team weaknesses: Inexperienced receivers and kicking game. Washington at times became too one-dimensional when the pocket broke down and Browning had to throw on the run. Now that Dante Pettis has carried his talents to the NFL, the verdict is still out on who’ll be the go-to receiver this fall. Besides Aaron Fuller, no other receiver caught more than 20 balls last season. To make matters worse, starting tight end Hunter Bryant is out with an injury and may miss the entire 2018 season. The kicking game was a hot mess in 2017 and kicker Van Soderberg has only made one field goal during his career.

Players to watch: Quarterback Browning, running back Gaskin, nose tackle Gaines, linebacker Burr-Kirven and free safety Taylor Rapp. Browning is entering his fourth season as the starting signal-caller and he’s the Huskies’ all-time leader in touchdown passes with 78. Gaskin is an exciting player to watch and he’s the Huskies’ all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 45 and is a three-time 1,300 yard rusher. Gaines had 30 tackles from his nose tackle position and was All Pac-12 second team in 2017. Burr-Kirven made plays all over the field on defense and led the team in tackles and was first team All Pac-12. Rapp was the teams’ third leading tackler with 59 tackles, 3.5 from the behind the line of scrimmage, two sacks and an interception.

The schedule: Manageable. The season-opener against Auburn will be huge for the program and for the Pac 12 as a whole. Win that and everyone will be jumping on the Huskies bandwagon. The road schedule isn’t pretty with having to travel to Utah, UCLA, Oregon, California and Washington State. The best part is Washington gets Stanford at home and avoids USC from the south.

My take: Washington will be out on a mission in 2018. Besides Stanford, the Huskies are the preseason favorite to win the conference. With one of the best defenses in the nation and a veteran group on offense, sky is the limit for this team. Even with a loss to Auburn in the season-opener, I can see Washington running the table and back pedaling into the College Football Playoff for the second time under Petersen.