Note: I had originally planned on making this week's debate centered around the (potentially, but probably) collapsing Oregon Dynasty, but maybe it was best to put that on ice until after Saturday because it's college football, and anything can happen on any weekend.
Five games in to the season and approaching a momentous rivalry game seems like the perfect time talk about something else for a little while. Not for too long, of course, since those previews of Oregon's three man pass rush are like finding out the lake is full of fish before a big fishing trip. For a couple minutes though, let's ignore them and focus only on us.
And by us, of course I mean the Washington Huskies team fresh off a we-don't-know-if-it's-going-to-be-a-good-victory-in-december road win over former UW (and now former USC) head coach, Steve Sarkisian. (I write about them on this website once or twice a week, so I feel weird using us in that context, so please forgive me.) They're not red hot, but the thermometer is trending upwards, and the team looks better than advertised, especially the defense, arguably the top in the conference. Even though it's a team sport and it's very tough to know the true impact of any singular player on the field, the most popular imaginary award to prognosticate on the internet is the MVP award, and even though the Huskies are much more of a collaborative unit than anything else, there still has to be one. It's the rules.
Is Washington's MVP Budda Baker, right now, at this very moment?
The Case For Budda Baker, MVP
In 2015, where offenses will try and make you cover the entire field, there is no more valuable defender than the free safety. 20 years ago, sure, having a linebacker that could scrape and make plays from tackle to tackle was huge and it took away what the offense was built to do, but in modern football, that's not as important. Tackle to tackle was replaced with sideline to sideline, and where linebackers used to be praised if they could do more than that and drop back in coverage, the modern safety earns their recognition when they can come downhill and make plays in the running game. With how prolific teams are in the quick passing game today, you have to have as many guys up near the line of scrimmage as possible, and a safety that can take away the deep part of the field by himself allows you to play with a single high alignment and move the strong safety over a slot WR or TE without making your defense susceptible to the vertical attack. In other words, a good free safety allows you to run the type of defense that can slowdown the spread offenses.
That's just what a good free safety does. Budda Baker is a phenomenal free safety, which is worth so much more.
Even though his tackling numbers are down from last year and he's yet to tally an interception, Baker's impact has been felt on the final stats sheet, with the team carrying a 3-1 record with him, and their worst defensive performance (which was still pretty solid) coming in a loss in which he did not play in. That's an overly simplified way of looking at what is "Most Valuable" but there's some validity that his absence was felt hard during the California game. There's not enough to hang your hat on with that alone, but it's a good starting point.
The biggest impact is what you don't see when he's on the field. Teams rarely throw his way and when they do, it's because they had him beat (which is rare), had a fantastic playcall or they're trying to "take a shot downfield", which is the bizarro draw play in this post-modern football world that's used to keep the defense honest and try and catch a defense being overaggressive (but that's another post for another time). Because of teams avoiding him, he doesn't get much action or television time unless he's moving downhill and making a tackle, which is what I want out of my free safety. That kind of free safety's impact is felt by his fellow defensive backs and the linebackers in front of him that can play with the ultimate safety net behind them. The thing about safety nets is they don't actually make you much safer, people just end up using safety enhancements to push things even harder towards the danger zone.
The Case for Someone Else
Fortunately for Washington fans, there are still cases to be made for a few others also gunning for the fictitious MVP award I just made up.
Travis Feeney: The transition to the BUCK position was a bumpy one at first, but now that things are settled Feeney has been a strong attacking off the edge, with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in last Thursday's victory over USC. You can't always trust sack numbers to tell the stories of pressures, but they've been pretty indicative of Feeney's progression as a pass rusher this season, starting off slow but heating up recently. By season's end, the versatile linebacker could have the stats and the moments to run away with this made up distinction, and he's definitely earned his way into the conversation at this point.
Azeem Victor: The team's leading tackler and a force in the running game, Victor's emergence as one of what should be called the Bash Brothers (a nickname that transcends the relevance of the Mighty Ducks Trilogy) has been an anchor of the Huskies' bolstered rushing defense. With double digit showings against all four FBS opponents, Victor has proven to be a consistent, reliable anchor in the middle of the defense, but is the anchor more valuable than the motor?
Sidney Jones: Shutdown corners are hard to find (especially when you have more pressure now to load up your offenses with your best athletes/playmakers) but for the past season and a half, that's been the essence of Sidney Jones. There has been ups and down for Jones, but that's the name of the game for corners, really. I mean, there's three people, at least, on every opposing staff that watch the film and try and find out the best ways to beat these corners in passing situations, so it's hard enough to be average, but to be borderline elite is even more remarkable. Where this comes to an impasse is the impact that the corner has on the free safety, and vice versa. A great safety allows the corner to play more aggressive underneath but a great corner allows the safety to roam more and be challenged on the perimeter less. An argument can be made for either and not necessarily be wrong.