After becoming a familiar face to Washington Huskies fans during her time as a member of ESPN’s Pac-12 Blog, Chantel Jennings now covers college football for the team over at The All-American, led by Stewart Mandel. Recently, Chantel was kind enough to answer some questions for us to give us a sense of how the Chris Petersen and the Dawgs are viewed on the national scene, and what she thinks the Huskies might be able to accomplish in 2018. You can find Chantel’s work at the All-American, and she can frequently be found talking college football over on Twitter.
Ryan Priest: The last 12 months have certainly been eventful for you: In April 2017, you learned that (like so many others) you had been let go by ESPN with little to no notice. Several months later, you became one of the charter writers for The Athletic. What was that stretch of time like for you, and what did you learn about yourself during that process?
Chantel Jennings: I guess the best way to explain that time was just that it was completely new. Outside of my college newspaper, ESPN was the only journalism job I had ever had and then on one random day, that wasn’t the case anymore. I had been in Eugene when I got the call so I had the drive back to sort of process the news and I had really valuable chats with a lot of my close friends and family. Everyone had different kinds of advice — make to-do lists every day so you don’t get stuck in a rut, read this book, meet with this person, go travel, do yoga, learn to cook, binge watch a TV series. Some pieces I took and others I didn’t. One friend recommended to me a book entitled Designing Your Life. I was pretty skeptical. I’m a big reader, but not a big self-help reader. But, the book is written in a unique way and from a unique vantage point that forces you to distill parts of your life into the tiny pieces that bring you joy. It asks: Where do those tiny pieces exist elsewhere? How could you create something that reflects those tiny pieces? For me, the book was a good reminder that what I love about sportswriting is the stories I get to tell. But, storytelling also exists in so many other fields. So, I spent a lot of the time that I didn’t have a job having conversations with people in different fields about storytelling. I wasn’t sure I was going to come back into sportswriting, but when I heard about The Athletic and had an opportunity to speak with our editors about their vision for what stories we would tell and how we could tell them, I knew it was a place that I could really love.
Most of our readers became familiar with your work while you were a member of ESPN’s Pac-12 blog alongside Ted Miller, Kevin Gemmell, David Lombardi and Kyle Bonagura. At The Athletic, you’ve written much about Pac-12 teams, but have also covered topics such as Temple’s recruiting efforts, how new coaches quickly assemble color-conscious wardrobes, and the story of two Michigan players who helped resurrect the Wolverines without being able to experience the fruit of their labors firsthand. When you were considering joining The Athletic, did you prioritize the opportunity to tell stories beyond the footprint of the Pac-12? What effect has that opportunity had on your development as a writer and reporter?
Our editors have been really receptive to all pitches. Just because I live in Oregon and know the Pac-12 well doesn’t necessarily mean no one else is going to write about this conference or I’m not going to write about another conference. The charge from them from the get-go was: Write the stories you would want to read. And that’s what I have tried to do. Some of my story pitches come from conversations with coaches, scouts, players, fans. Other story ideas are literally just me trying to answer a question I asked myself (the neck tie story happened because I was sitting in Jonathan Smith’s introductory press conference and I genuinely wondered how he had acquired that orange tie in 48 hours or if it were from his playing days in Corvallis). And sometimes story ideas come from me reading an article written by someone else and trying to find a piece within that story that just sort of resonates with me and if there’s a way for me to expand on that.
Washington has a very vocal minority of fans who believe that Jake Browning has hit his ceiling, and hope that one of the two four-star quarterbacks in the 2018 class can supplant him at some point this season as Washington’s starting quarterback. (Side note: These people should not be taken seriously.) As someone with a wider view of college football than those of us focused on the Huskies, what can you tell us about the national perspective of Browning and the role he plays on Washington’s offense?
I think there’s a high level of respect for Browning on a national level. Even people who have really only seen him play against Alabama in the College Football Playoff have to respect the guy because of how he handled himself during and after that game. I think people outside of Seattle tend to view Browning as a very levelheaded, mature, intelligent player which by all accounts of people who know him well seems to be very true.
This season will be interesting because Washington has a young group of receivers and there’s not exactly a clear-cut No. 1 WR with whom Browning has established chemistry. Everyone is going to have an extreme opinion on every quarterback and I’ve talked to people at the next level about him and have heard varied analysis and thoughts, but that’s not uncommon. There aren’t very many quarterbacks that everyone loves. So, within a fan base that’s obviously going to be the case, too.
Huskies fans are by and large thrilled that Chris Petersen has returned the Dawgs to national relevance, but some are frustrated by Washington’s failure to win the quote-unquote big games against teams like USC, Penn State and Alabama. What are the goals you think Washington needs to accomplish in order to truly join college football’s elite?
Join the SEC.
Elite is typically going to be a matter of perspective. (I went to Michigan and most Michigan grads will tell you that the Wolverines are elite even though recent results wouldn’t exactly point you in that direction, but hey in the early 1900s the Wolverines definitely were…) But, in terms of perspective, let’s start close to home. In that regard, I don’t think there’s a single team or coach within the Pac-12 that look at Washington and say, “I don’t know if that’s an elite team…”
But, if the question is more focused on that guy in Georgia or that lady in Ohio thinking of the Huskies as college football’s elite, then I think you partially answered the question — Washington needs to win big games. At Boise State, Petersen won a ton of games, but he was considered an elite coach across the entire country because of those big wins over Power 5 programs. Under Petersen in the playoff era, the Huskies haven’t had those marquee non-conference opportunities to secure a win (and that’s at no fault of Petersen or Jen Cohen) … until this season. That match up with Auburn in Atlanta is huge for Washington. Win that game and the stage is at least set for the Huskies to put together a resume that could have them in the playoff conversation at the end of the season. Lose that and the same criticisms will be following the team as they have the last few seasons — But what good wins do the Huskies have???
True or false: Washington and the entire Pac-12 is left out of the next College Football Playoff, making that three misses in four years for the so-called Conference of Champions.
Thanks again to Chantel for taking the time to speak with us! Be sure to check out her latest story for The All-American: “Why Utah has consistently had the Pac-12’s best run defense.” (I’m sure that won’t ruffle any feathers around here, eh?)