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Week Eight Debate: Washington’s Strengths vs. Opponent’s Weaknesses

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A worse-than-expected Pac-12 has cast a shadow of a doubt on the quality of Washington’s victories this year. Are the Huskies truly one of the best teams in the country?

NCAA Football: Portland State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Huskies took the college football world by storm over the course of the past two weeks by blowing the doors off of Stanford and Oregon, beating the two by a combined score of 114-27. That success has culminated in the team’s No. 5 ranking in the latest AP and coaches polls; as a result, Washington now appears to have the inside track for a berth in the Pac-12 championship game, and perhaps even the College Football Playoff. The question is, does Washington’s success in those games say more about the Huskies’ strengths, or does it say more about its opponents’ weaknesses?

Buy: Washington is legitimately elite

The case that this says more about Washington’s strengths has a lot of evidence to back it up. Everyone knows about Washington’s offensive struggles last year, especially in the first half of the season. But with the benefit of hindsight, we now know for certain that a big factor, perhaps the biggest, in the team’s progress was the maturation of its freshmen and sophomore players. Last year, the 56 players on Washington’s offensive and defensive depth charts for the bowl game against Southern Miss included 24 true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. Among them were QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, OL Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, WRs Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher, DL Greg Gaines and Vita Vea, and DBs Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Darren Gardenhire and Jordan Miller. In other words, last year’s team was very young and inexperienced. (And yes, I’m aware of how much of a running joke it is to refer to the Huskies as a young program, since that adjective has been thrown out virtually every year going back to the beginning of the Steve Sarkisian era. But that doesn’t make it any less true.)

What we’re seeing now is the fruit of those youthful struggles. Jake Browning came into college as perhaps the most accomplished quarterback in the history of high school football, having thrown 229 touchdowns at Folsom, including 91 during his senior year. It took eight or nine games into his freshmen year for the game to slow down for him, but once it did, the results were unmistakable. Browning now leads the FBS in passing touchdowns, having completed 23 of them on 144 attempts. Cal’s Davis Webb is No. 2 with 22 touchdown passes, but it’s taken him 301 attempts to do so. In other words, Webb has thrown more than double Browning’s number of pass attempts, and has one fewer touchdown to show for his efforts. That’s incredible.

Elsewhere, Myles Gaskin seems to be in a nice groove after a somewhat slower-than-expected start to his season, the offensive line has yielded just 1.83 sacks per game after allowing 2.62 per game last year, and the defense ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 nationally in points allowed, giving up just 14.2 points per game. Simply put, this team is adopting the key characteristics that made Chris Petersen’s best teams at Boise State so attractive: They’re showing an ability to play sound fundamental football while forcing the opposing team to execute its scheme flawlessly on every single play. That’s the sort of play that wins championships, and it’s no stretch to say that Washington will deserve to be in the thick of the race for a College Football Playoff or Rose Bowl berth in the postseason.

Sell: Washington is the big fish in a small pond

Even the most strident defenders of the Washington program will concede that its competition this year hasn’t exactly been of the world-beating variety. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index metric, which ranks all 128 FBS programs, Washington’s 2016 opponents are rated as follows: Rutgers, 101; Idaho, 116, FCS Portland State, not rated; Arizona, 53; Stanford, 31; Oregon, 52. Even giving Washington the benefit of the doubt by leaving out Portland State, that translates to an average opponent rank of 70.6 out of 128. It doesn’t help Washington’s case, either, that the highest-ranked opponent—Stanford at 31—was blown out in two consecutive weeks before eking out a close win against struggling Notre Dame; granted, one of those blowouts was at Washington’s hand, but it’s evidence that Washington’s victory over the Cardinal maybe wasn’t as impactful or important as we first thought.

In fact, we are quickly approaching territory that was unthinkable just two months ago: That Stanford and Oregon aren’t just teams experiencing a down year, but that they might rapidly be headed toward total collapse. Consider that Washington’s 70 points against Oregon was the most that the Ducks had ever given up in the series, and that Stanford’s 38-point loss to Washington and 26-point loss to the Cougars is the program’s worst back-to-back defeats since 2006, predating the Jim Harbaugh-era. That doesn’t happen to teams that are struggling with some minor bumps and hiccups; that happens to programs that are either in free-fall, or on the brink of free-falling.

Now, we want to hear what you think. Are the No. 5 Washington Huskies, sitting at 6-0 and the conference’s best hope of a College Football Playoff berth, as good as its most enthusiastic fans believe? Or is the team’s win total and statistics inflated by a deceivingly low level of competition that they’ve played so far? Be sure to chime in on the comments to let us know your thoughts.