— By Kyle Kensing, The Sports Xchange —
Back-to-back double-digit-win seasons and a solid core of returning starters on both sides of the ball have set high expectations for Washington in 2018.
Pac-12 Conference media tabbed the Huskies as near-unanimous favorites to win the league championship, and Associated Press pollsters picked Washington No. 6 in the nation. From there, it’s a short climb to the four-team College Football Playoff, where the Huskies ended the 2016 season.
With a Week 1 game against the No. 9-ranked Auburn Tigers, defending champions of the SEC West, Washington’s mettle faces a test immediately.
“This team has played no good football, (because it’s played) no football,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “So to come out and play that caliber right away, the margin for error is miniscule (and) will be a different challenge than we’ve had.”
Indeed, Saturday’s Top 10 matchup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta — a virtual road game with Washington traveling across the country and Auburn a mere 100-mile drive on I-89 away — marks a departure from the Huskies’ recent non-conference schedules. Last season’s was so maligned, ESPN dedicated a segment during a Washington game telecast to deride the Huskies’ “cupcakes.”
While it is worth noting 2017 Washington opponent Fresno State finished the regular season ranked in the Top 25, the complexion of a matchup with Auburn is dramatically different. This is a team that, under coach Gus Malzahn, came one win away from reaching last season’s College Football Playoff. In Malzahn’s first season with the Tigers, 2013, they finished a single drive shy of a national championship.
The noted quarterback guru Malzahn returns second-year starter Jarrett Stidham, a high-potential playmaker who passed for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns a season ago.
“First game of every season is a great feeling. You’re nervous, it’s the start to the season, but we’re going to have fun with it,” said Washington defensive back JoJo McIntosh. “That first game doesn’t determine the season, but we’re going to go in there and give everything we have.”
Both Auburn and Washington return to action from the layoff coming off tough losses in New Year’s Six bowl games. Auburn coughed up a second-half lead in the Peach Bowl against UCF, while Washington fell short in a comeback effort against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Compounding Washington’s eight-month frustration coming off a loss, the Huskies were one of eight Pac-12 teams to lose in a historically inept bowl season for the conference. In addition to establishing its own Playoff credibility, national media has assigned Washington the weighty responsibility of carrying the flag for the Pac-12.
No pressure; it’s only Week 1.
–QB Jake Browning begins his fourth season starting at quarterback. Browning hit his statistical peak in 2016, passing for 34 touchdowns and just three interceptions through the first nine games. But a late-season shoulder injury slowed him (nine touchdowns, six interceptions) and in 2017, he never regained that initial 2016 output. Coach Chris Petersen said for Browning to reach his ceiling is a matter of “consistency of decision-making.”
That should play an especially key role against an Auburn defense that ranked No. 18 against the pass nationally a season ago.
–OLB Ryan Bowman delivered on an impressive freshman season, leading Washington in 2017 with 5.5 sacks. His aggressive edge-rushing should set the tone for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense against an Auburn offense that last season allowed 36 sacks, tied for 13th-most in the FBS.
–DT Greg Gaines faced some injury questions in training camp, though multiple reports suggest the 6-foot-2, 322-pound presence on the interior of Washington’s defensive line will be ready for Week 1. Gaines becomes the focal point on the Huskies front with Vita Vea gone for the NFL. His ability to plug running lanes will be pivotal in Washington’s attempt to slow explosive Auburn running back Kam Martin, whose 6.1 per carry average led the Tigers’ three-man running back rotation a season ago.
–TE Hunter Bryant sustained a knee injury in the summer, which coach Chris Petersen announced at July’s Pac-12 media day would sideline Bryant indefinitely.
–Saturday marks the first meeting in program history between Auburn and Washington.