Posted on June 28, 2020
With the college football season fast approaching, we continue our 12-part 2020 Pac-12 football previews with the Washington Huskies. The weekly series culminates in Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
General Outlook: Washington’s Season Hinges on Offensive Production
Overview: Following the surprise retirement of Chris Peterson, Washington looked within, promoting highly regarded Jimmy Lake to lead the Huskies back to the promised land.
The former UW defensive coordinator welcomes back seven returning starters on defense, and will rely heavily on their leadership and experience in his first year at the helm. The unit projects as one of the nation’s best, and should give the Dawgs a legitimate shot to beat anyone they play.
On offense, new offensive coordinator John Donovan must transition Washington to a new quarterback after the departure of Jacob Eason. Whoever leads the group will have just four returning starters, and place its run-heavy hopes on the back of Richard Newton.
Best-Case Scenario: Washington finishes second in the North Division, grinding out a nine-win season on the strength of its defense. Newton has a breakout year on the ground, while wideouts Terrell Bynum and Puka Nacua combine for 10-plus touchdowns. Tight-end Cade Otton provides a consistent go-to option in the red-zone, relieving the pressure on projected starting quarterback Jacob Sirmon.
On the other side of the ball, the defense exceeds expectations, stifling opposing offenses, and keeping UW within striking distance late in games. In the end, Lake leads the Huskies to an upper-echelon bowl game for a chance at a 10-win season.
It’s no Picasso, but the Dawgs get it done.
Worst Case Scenario: Sirmon struggles to run the offense, turning the ball over and putting his defense in bad spots. The Huskies turn to prolific Sacramento State transfer Kevin Thomson, whose Big Sky wizardry doesn’t translate to the Pac-12. Backup Dylan Morris isn’t any more successful than the other two, and the offense sputters, scoring just enough to win seven games.
At the skill positions, Nacua struggles to stay healthy and Otton’s talent is squandered on poor execution. Opponents game-plan to stop the run, making life difficult for Newton.
The defense is the saving grace. By sheer strength, skill, and leadership the unit guides the program to a bowl game. Star corner Elijah Molden and defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike lead the way, while freshman defensive end Sav’ell Smalls has a breakout year.
What Should Happen: The Huskies should contend in the North, battling Oregon and California for the Division crown. Expect Lake to rely on his defensive prowess and tweak the offense to compensate for a potential lack of readiness under center. The end product could feature a conservative slow-it-down offensive approach that avoids risks and favors the run. Newton shows himself to be an effective every-down runner, giving UW a time of possession advantage in most contests.
Even with an unproven offense, Washington wins low-scoring affairs on the shoulders of its defense. The stout unit shines, stopping most opponents in their tracks. Lake’s troops generate turnovers and force timely punts, while Linebacker Joe Tyron solidifies himself as one of the Conference’s best. Each game is a battle, but the grindstone keeps churning and the Dawgs emerge victorious more often than not.
As for the quarterback situation, clarity emerges after the first few weeks once a proven option emerges. In the meantime, Lake continues to ride an effective run game, judiciously blending in short and medium-range passes.
What Must Happen: A leader must emerge at the quarterback position.
With Sirmon’s limited experience, the door is open for either Thomas or Morris to win the starting role. On some levels, it doesn’t matter which player ends up taking command. The expectations are the same: Turnovers must be limited and passes must be completed.
Fortunately, the offensive line remains solid, with Jaxson Kirkland and Luke Wattenberg serving as anchors, while incoming freshman Myles Murao looks to play a prominent role. At wideout, Bynum and Nacua provide deadly weapons while Otton gives the Dawgs a viable threat in the slot.
Bottom line, the talent is there, and the Huskies should be able to hold their own if a quarterback emerges to make the easy throws and get the ball to talented playmakers. In the final analysis, the play-calling must be tailored to make things easy for the prevailing gunslinger. Otherwise, offensive setbacks could be too much to overcome.
Greatest Strength: A deep and experienced defense
UW’s defense is loaded with weapons across the board. The unit returns most of its starters after giving up just 19.4 points per game in 2019.
The strength begins in the secondary with Molden and Keith Taylor. The two seniors are complemented by sophomores Cam Williams, Asa Turner, Trent McDuffie, and Kyler Gordon. The six comprise one of the best secondaries in the nation, and should lockdown all but the best opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
Along the line, Onwuzurike accents a deep corps of returners: Josiah Bronson started nearly every game last season, and redshirt-sophomores Tuli Letuligasenoa and Sam Taimani are expected to contribute even more this year. Incoming freshman Smalls adds additional depth to the unit.
The weak-link on defense, if there is one, would have to be the linebackers. Outside of Tyron and Ryan Bowman, who logged 5.5 sacks last year, the group is relatively untested. Walk-on Edefuan Ulofoshio stepped in on the interior after inconsistent play and injuries forced a change, and played well enough to earn a scholarship. His production this season could erase any concerns about the unit’s consistency.
Biggest Concern: Uncertainty at the Quarterback Position
Jacob Eason left a substantial void to fill and it’s unclear if Sirmon, Thomson, or Morris has the moxie or ability to lead the team. Their inexperience on a big stage presents the greatest challenge Lake must overcome in his first year. Thomson has proven himself at a lower level, but it remains to be seen if he can perform as well against Pac-12 competition. Whoever wins the job, that opening game against Michigan will be one helluva debut.
Early-season struggles are predictable and are to be expected.
Lake must exercise caution and patience with his quarterback room, working each week to build on the prior performance. Newton should help ease the burden, but one of the signal callers must rise to the challenge. A void of leadership at the position could derail the season, especially if untimely turnovers thwart the unit’s progress, splintering morale.
Deciding Factors: Defensive Dominance and Consistency
The defense needs to perform up to expectations. Projected as one of the nation’s best, it cannot afford to fall short, as a handful of wins will likely hang in the balance. With an offense that may struggle more often then not, there is little room for error on the other side of the ball.
Fortunately, Lake crafted an elite defense last season, finishing 15th nationally in points allowed per game. If the confidence he has shown in his defensive players and system translates to his new role as head coach, the Huskies should be set. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of managing it.
Schedule Analysis: Key Nonconference and Conference Matchups
The season begins with a highly anticipated matchup with Michigan in Seattle. It’s unusual for a high-quality Big 10 opponent to play a Pac-12 team on the road, but credit both programs for getting it done.
A win, coupled with a similar early season outcome by USC and Oregon against Alabama and Ohio State, could boost the Conference’s reputation to its highest point in years. While neither the Dawgs or Wolverines are currently projected as playoff contenders, the winner would be well-positioned to ambush the conversation with a string of victories.
Sacramento State comes to Montlake the following week, in a game that could feature Thomson picking apart his old team. Utah State rounds out the non-conference season at Husky Stadium, making a 2-1 start seem all but assured. And 3-0 isn’t out of the question.
Conference play begins with a pivotal road test at Oregon. The Ducks will be looking to reestablish their decade-long dominance with a third-straight win over the Huskies, raising the temperature on a rivalry that has never stopped boiling. It should be a bruiser, with both teams fielding dominant defenses.
The remainder of the year features winnable games in Seattle against Arizona, Oregon State, Colorado, and Stanford. Road tilts at Utah and California pencil out as toss-ups, while the road battle in L.A. against USC looms daunting.
This year’s Apple Cup in Pullman is particularly intriguing, with two first-year coaches and two new starting quarterbacks squaring off in another bitter feud.
At worst, a seven-win season seems to be in the cards, but the potential is there for a 10-win campaign, or better, if everything goes right.
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