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Expectations are sky-high for the 2018 Washington Huskies

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Its starting to feel like “Playoffs or Bust” around Montlake.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The PAC 12 opened up their schedule last night with Utah’s 41-10 pummeling of Jay Hill’s Weber State club last night. Watching the broadcast, I came to realize just how high the expectations are for the Washington Huskies this season.

At times it felt like that the PAC 12 Network announcing crew (Mike Yam, Roxy Bernstein, Yogi Roth, and Nigel Burton) seemed more interested in discussing the prospects for UW winning the conference and pushing for a spot in the College Football Playoff than actually analyzing the action happening on the field of Rice-Eccles.

It’s not surprising that the PAC 12 Networks would be interested in allocating considerable air time to previewing the conference. The first football game of the season is exactly the right time to “set up your lineup” for the season if you are a broadcast outfit looking to generate some excitement.

Still, the sheer volume of time and superlatives given to Washington reminded me just how strongly this notion of UW being the great hope of the conference continues to resonate with those invested in PAC 12. We’ve discussed this notion at length.

The expectations that others have of what the Huskies will deliver are sky-high. These include any and all of the following:

  • a victory over Auburn
  • wins in all of their home games
  • a PAC 12 North title
  • a PAC 12 championship
  • an undefeated regular season
  • a playoff spot
  • a victory in the playoffs
  • a chance at a national title

In addition, fans of advance statistics will have already noticed that S&P+ gives UW a 100% (?!?) probability of making a bowl game. All of that plus expectations to deliver world peace, a new NAFTA deal and a boyfriend for Rheago seems to be falling into the laps of Chris Petersen and his Huskies.

That’s a heapin’ pile of expectations even before we factor in that nearly 30% of all of you expect the Huskies to win the whole shabang.

Of course, if you were to ask Chris Petersen himself, he would immediately dispense with the “we only expect to play our hardest one game at a time” cliches. I have no doubt that he is completely earnest in that sentiment and that he is right in trying to reign in the ballooning of expectations lest they become a burden for his players and his program. The problem is that he isn’t the highest compensated employee of the state of Washington in spite of the expectation to “win”. He’s paid to do just that.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Fans expect Jake Browning to make this and every other play out there this season.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the outside world’s expectations are out of control and Chris Petersen’s (stated) expectations are not ambitious enough, what ought we expect from the Huskies on the eve of the kickoff to the 2018 season?

To get at that answer, it is probably worth starting with what we can measure. We can measure the experience of the roster - 15 starters return to a two-deep that features 29 players who have some starting experience and no true freshmen. That’s a good start.

The program features four four-year starters (Trey Adams, Kaleb McGary, Myles Gaskin and Jake Browning) as well as nine other players (by my count) who have starting experience dating back to their freshmen seasons. In addition, no fewer than 23 Huskies who will see the field tomorrow saw snaps in Peach Bowl against Alabama two seasons ago.

Experience? Check. Big game experience. Check check.

But it isn’t just the experience factor that we must consider. We ought to also look at production. Again, UW’s looks fantastic. Let’s run down a sampling of what Washington has produced since the CFP era began:

  • 829 points differential (fifth among all programs)
  • 26 wins >20 points (tied for 2nd with Alabama behind Ohio’s State)
  • 1 loss >20 points (tied for 2nd behind Alabama)
  • 113 forced turnovers (1st)
  • 162 sacks (3rd behind Clemson & Alabama)

That’s a whole lot of production coming from a whole lot of experience for the Huskies.

Given all of this, it might seem totally fair to expect great accomplishment from this team. A North title is table stakes. A conference championship seems a 50/50 proposition ... at minimum. The Rose Bowl, therefore seems to be a reasonable expectation if the conference is in play. That would be fantastic, right?

But why should we stop there? If the Dawgs are good enough to get to the Rose Bowl, why shouldn’t we expect them to win it? And, frankly, if they are good enough to get to the Rose Bowl, why not the CFP? And if they can get to the CFP, shouldn’t all of their big game experience lead to a win and a trip to the national championship?

The problem with all of this compounding expectation is that it is built on a house of cards. There are many things that happen to football teams over the course of the season that are essentially uncontrollable and can affect the outcomes of a single game. These issues can manifest themselves in both objective (standings) and nuanced (perceptions of “best” among CFP Selection Committee members) ways.

The bottom line is that expecting an outcome in which not all the variables are under your control is to invite disappointment.

My expectation for this year’s team is a little less objective if not ambitious. I simply want to see from the 2018 Huskies what we did not see last season: a decided step forward.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Vanderbilt
Jacob Eason could inherit the keys to a surging program if Uw can take the ““next step” in its journey to consistent excellence this year.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Huskies had the chance to reinforce to pundits, fans and prospective recruits that its run to the playoff the year prior wasn’t a fluke. They had the chance to show the world that the offense could survive the loss of a great wide receiver and be just as explosive. They had the chance to show that the offensive line could be improved and that a dominant pass rusher could be developed. They had the chance to show the world that west coast football was a legitimate threat to the ESPN / SEC coalition that reigns supreme in the land and that big time programs outside the PAC had something to be concerned about when UW showed up across from them in the post season.

None of that happened as UW had a plateau season in which the offense regressed and the defense at best, stayed flat. An inexplicable road loss to ASU and a narrow loss to Stanford not only kept UW out of the Playoff, it kept them from even winning their division. It was still a great, great season of exciting football, but it wasn’t a step forward.

In 2018, it is fair to expect that next step. We should see the breakout of new receiving threats who can make the offense more explosive. We should expect to see a pass rusher or two emerge. We should see the offensive line develop into one of the two or three best units in the PAC and we ought to see the benefit of increased depth all across the roster. Most of all, we ought to expect everybody to believe that the 2019 Huskies could be even better than the 2018 version even after the graduations of guys like Gaskin, JoJo McIntosh, Adams, McGary, Tevis Bartlett and Browning.

It’s that sense that the success of the program is more a factor of the program itself than the stars going through it that we all ought to be targeting. For the first time in decades, there is a real opportunity for Washington to achieve that status ... a status that is normally reserved for the truly elite programs in all of college football.

A win over Auburn tomorrow isn’t an absolute requirement if this kind of ascension is the expectation. But it sure wouldn’t hurt.

Either way, this has the potential to be a real pivot season for the program. Failure to take that next step could very well undermine the credibility of the path that the current staff is taking the program down. However, a few credible improvements over next year could build optimism around the bright talents of the great young talent that this program has in its reserves and create a real groundswell of momentum among spectators and recruits alike.

Success begets success. That’s what we all should expect.