Los Angeles has a well-earned reputation for being the city where people go to chase their dreams. Every waiter is after that audition that will turn him into the next Chris Hemsworth; every USC and UCLA film school graduate is on the cusp of becoming the next Stanley Kubrick. It seems fitting, then, that University of Washington head coach Chris Petersen, ever the grounded realist, spent his time at Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood asking — practically begging, if truth be told — the assembled reporters, newspaper columnists and television personalities to give his team a chance to prove their worth before crowning the Huskies as college football’s Next Big Thing.
“We’re amused — that’s probably the best word — that we continually get better every single week with doing nothing,” said Petersen, without a trace of amusement in his delivery, during his Friday afternoon press conference. “We have as much hype as the new Pokémon game that no one knows anything about but thinks is really cool. That’s us. So, we want to get out there and get better, and we want to get a chance to go prove that we’re getting better.”
If one word comes to define Washington’s 2016 season, it will likely be the one that Petersen so conspicuously used in that last sentence: prove. Prove that last season’s best-in-the-conference defense wasn’t a flash in the pan. Prove that the offense’s explosion to end the year was a sign of his and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith’s schemes coming together, and not just an instance of superior athletes beating up on talent-inferior foes. And perhaps most importantly, prove that the Huskies are finally worthy of reclaiming their long-dormant mantle as one of the West Coast’s premier powers.
In order to do so, Washington will have to finally do something it hasn’t done since George W. Bush’s first term as president, and come home from the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium with a tally in the win column. The media poll, after all, revealed that the Pac-12’s pundits expect Washington to finish in second place in the race for the North division, behind conference favorite Stanford and ahead of the Ducks. (Oregon, mind you, just capped off their most “disappointing” season in years by winning nine games, a feat UW has accomplished just once since Marques Tuiasosopo was running the show on Montlake.) Senior cornerback and defensive representative to the event Kevin King acknowledged this yesterday, when Christian Caple of The News Tribune reports that he said, “If we go 13-1 or whatever, and that one loss is to Oregon, that would be tragic.”
Senior tight end Darrell Daniels, in L.A. on behalf of the Husky offense, was a bit more tight-lipped than King and hewed closer to the company line in his dealings with the media. “We haven’t done anything. We were 7-6 last year, and we haven’t played a game this season yet,” he said. “But we know who we are in the locker room and what we want to be and where we want to get, but as far as outside noise, we don’t even pay attention to that stuff.”
Still, the expectations surrounding the program are gathering momentum in much the same way that a tropical storm can turn inexorably into a category five hurricane. Petersen can plead with fans and media to tamp down their expectations until he’s blue in the face; he’ll find that doing so will be as effective as shouting at a rainstorm in an effort to stop the lightning from striking. They hype machine has begun to make its move toward Montlake, and will reach its crescendo sometime between Sept. 3 and Oct. 9. That’s the window during which the Huskies will either lose their first (or second, or third, or ...) game of the year, and the hype dies in favor of discontent and disappointment; or, alternatively, the Huskies will be the proud owners of a 6-0 record, including a 2-0 mark against modern powers Stanford and Oregon.
Either way, there’s no escaping that the Huskies are this year’s upstart darlings. Lofty (and undeserved, according to Petersen) expectations have been heaped upon them, whether the coaches and players wanted them or not. What transpires over the next four months is going to go a long way toward either informing the belief of many Husky fans that Chris Petersen is Don James writ anew, or convince the very same people that Petersen is just another pretender in a long line of Husky coaches that goes back nearly 30 years. Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to watch as it slowly but surely plays out.