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Has UW plateaued or are fan expectations out of whack?

Assessing the status of Washington Football post the 2016 CFP.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Alabama vs Washington RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Let me just say, I’m not proud of it. It’s an affliction. Not unlike having a shopping weakness. Or being hooked on Fortnite. Or being a cat-lover.

I’d never equate it to the seriousness of having a legitimate addiction such as with gambling, hording or drinking. But this is a real problem. You see, I can be easily duped.

Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the evidence.

  • I once bought stock in Nintendo because I thought Pokémon Go would revolutionize gaming.
  • I have both Antonio Gates and Josh Gordon on my fantasy football team. Every year.
  • I’ve bought into can’t-miss timeshares. Not once, but twice.
  • I was talked into managing a certain online blog because it would be a great “career move.”
  • I let a girlfriend convince me that I needed to propose or that she was going to walk (that turned out to work in my favor, but still).

So, yeah, I think this isn’t really debatable. Looking for an easy target for your first con job? I’m your man. Got swampland you want to unload on an investor looking to tap into unrealized real estate value? Just call me. Do you need somebody to sign up for your niece’s new essential oils pyramid selling operation? You got it.

Thus, it probably isn’t a surprise that I enlisted wholeheartedly into the notion that the 2018 Washington Huskies were a College Football Playoff contender. I bought the whole thing. The emergence of the young receivers. The development of all of those young BUCKs. The bounceback of the quarterback. The more difficult schedule. The importance of the Auburn game.

All of it. Hook, line, and sinker.

You would have thought I should have known better. After all, I’m the same blogger who wrote the piece on how UW failed to meet its own goals last season. Just a few weeks ago I produced the analysis on how UW seems to not win its fair share of games against “equal peers,” especially ranked out-of-conference opponents. I’ve kind of been clued in to this thing.

So, what in the name of Adam Morrison’s mustache is going on here?

Let me start with my opinion that I believe this UW team is excellent. Where the Huskies are today compared to where they began this journey is an infinitely more satisfying position. Certainly this is true from a fan’s point of view. I have little doubt it is a shared sentiment among those from within the program.

But, for whatever reason, this team has plateaued since its appearance in the 2016 College Football Playoff. One could argue that the Huskies were fortunate to get selected for the opportunity to get pounded by Alabama that year. A soft out-of-conference schedule, a breakout campaign from WR John Ross, and a weak year across the PAC all put UW in a position to get through the season with just one loss.

That team made the Playoff. It was a special team that seemed to embody all of Chris Petersen’s principles. The offense was balanced and multiple. The QB was accurate and aggressive. The defense was long and strong in the back, thick in the middle and fast on the edges. It was not a perfect team. But it was the best we’d seen in Montlake since the turn of the century and it was young.

It was the youth of that team that captivated the imaginations of Husky fans. As the contributors to that team matured and as Petersen’s own recruits arrived, how could this team do anything but get better?

But it hasn’t gotten better. If you look just at results, it has, at best, held serve. If you are looking at the advanced stats, it most certainly has regressed. In fact, it has regressed multiple times with the offense giving ground in 2017 and both the offense and special teams falling behind this season. If you just put eyeballs on the personnel, it seems that ratio of playmakers and critical contributors lost to graduation compared to playmakers developed has not remained positive.

Let’s be clear that this is a relative assessment. The bar we are comparing these last two teams to is incredibly high and one that very few programs around the country would actually hold themselves accountable to. Nevertheless, our expectations have been set as fans and it is hard to avoid wondering about what has actually happened.

I’m not sure that I have any real answers for you. But I do have some hypotheses that I would put out there for debate.

Before I get to those, though, I would like to dispense with the argument that fans’ expectations are “too high” or that a sense of entitlement has gripped the fanbase. That is a convenient passive-aggressive argument that purists who simply love the sport on a game-by-game basis post in order to silence the segment of the fanbase that is motivated by championships. Neither segment is wrong in how they choose to judge success nor in how they choose to root for the team. They are just different. And, frankly, each segment could probably benefit from taking on more of the perspectives from the other.

That said, I chafe at arguments that some make when a) trying to assess blame—like calling out a QB or a coach on a specific issue as if that were the silver bullet—or b) making sweeping judgments about the long-term trajectory of the program based on a limited data set. The truth is that there are no fatal flaws that this program is suffering. There are no cancers that are metastasizing deep within. No reasonable assessment of relevant metrics could lead one to such a conclusion.

This particular iteration of Husky football just isn’t in quite the same position to compete as its 2016 counterpart. The question is why.

It’s not accurate to say that the Huskies have not improved over the past two season. They certainly some areas. We can see it with the defensive secondary. It has progressed from really good to outstanding. The offensive line, though its progress has seen more stops and starts, is a quantum leap ahead of its 2016 counterpart. The tight end play has gotten dramatically better. The defensive line has gotten deeper.

And it’s not just the position groups. You can see the impact of coaching in certain execution statistics. Our penalties have decreased steadily since Petersen arrived and have been below 5 per game each of the past two years (we were over 8 per game under Sark). Our turnover margin rate has average 1 or more per game over the last two seasons (but is negative so far this season). Our third down conversion rate on offense has improved each season since 2016 and currently stands at over 50% for the first time in I don’t know how long (interesting side stat: UW led the PAC in third down conversions in Sark’s first year with a 46% mark).

Field discipline. Ball control. Offensive efficiency. Those are all signals associated with coaching and the impact of continuous development across a football roster.

Washington’s struggles over the past two seasons to reach the same lofty heights achieved in 2016 are most likely rooted in a few factors that many of us have articulated but haven’t really all been pulled together in a single analysis.

First, we probably need to acknowledge that Steve Sarkisian attracted some pretty special athletes to the program. When Petersen arrived he inherited players such as Shaq Thompson, Kevin King, Hau’oli Kikaha, Cory Littleton, Coleman Shelton, Elijah Qualls, Danny Shelton, Azeem Victor, Keishawn Bierria, John Ross, John Timu, Jaydon Mickens, and Travis Feeney. That’s a lot to work with. Getting those athletes together and putting them into a program that could harness their physical skills and translate them into results took a little while, especially given the QB situation in year one. But that 2016 team still had many of those athletes available.

Petersen’s staff was not able to attract the same caliber of athlete to the program in its first couple of recruiting cycles. Many of the depth challenges that we see with this year’s team can be tied to the recruiting misses that we all talked about with Petersen’s 2015 and 2016 classes—particularly at receiver and among DE/BUCK types. Those issues have been largely addressed, but those gaps have not yet been filled in with the young talent that is still on its way.

We probably need to also acknowledge that UW hasn’t had a great deal of luck with the health issues on the team. It is true that every team has to deal with injuries and many of them to their star players. But the 2016 team’s major injuries were Azeem Victor (late in the season) and Joe Mathis (7 games). That was it. Heck, even David Ajamu played in 13 games. Since then, UW has suffered injuries in key positional categories that didn’t necessarily have a ton of depth (receiver last season) or in areas that were relying on developing young players (tight end and offensive line come to mind). That UW has been able to overcome those injuries and keep winning is actually a testament to the impact of the coaching. But I think we also have to accept that these disruptions are part of the reason we aren’t seeing Washington play to that same 2016 standard.

In the end, I think it is fair to observe that maturation of football programs is hardly ever linear. I am also reminded of Mike Tyson’s very lucid (maybe his only?) observation that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Chris Petersen and his staff have a plan. Executing it is a challenge and has been met with some potholes in the road so far. But when you step back and look at all of the data points, it is hard to argue that it is failing.

I remember the conversation that I had with my daughter when she asked me the truth about Santa Claus. She had been convinced for some time that a fat, bearded man in a red suit saddled to flying reindeer was about as authentic as a three dollar bill. But, like most kids, she still wanted to feel the magic and exhilaration of the holiday season.

My message to her was the same as what I’d impart here: “It may not be exactly what you think it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.” Washington isn’t a playoff team this year. It wasn’t one last year. It may not be one next year. But that doesn’t mean that this team isn’t for real. And it doesn’t mean that there are no prizes left to enjoy this season.

And that’s no con.