You may not remember it, but there was a time when the Washington Huskies were a college football power. During the ’80s and ’90s, under Don James, the Huskies had a run of 18-straight winning seasons with the high water mark being a 12-0 season in 1991 when they split the national championship with the University of Miami in the pre-BCS days.
However, during the early 2000s, the program started to decline. After letting coach Rick Neuheisel go following a 7-6 season in 2002, the Huskies suffered through seven straight losing seasons under Keith Gilbertson, Tyrone Willingham, and the first year of Steve Sarkisian’s reign. The low point was an 0-12 season in 2008, the last year under Willingham. After Sarkisian’s first year, the Huskies returned to the fringe of national attention by posting three straight 7-6 years before a 9-4 season in 2013 before Sarkisian left to take the head job at USC.
That’s when the Huskies made what looks to be one of the smartest hires of that offseason, bringing in Boise State head coach Chris Petersen. Petersen went 15-12 in his first two seasons and now has the Huskies in the Top 10, following a preseason in which they were the dark horse pick to make it to the College Football Playoff.
After the glowing preseason build-up, the Huskies disappeared from view for the most part in the first four weeks as they beat up on a cupcake schedule of Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State and then squeaked out a win in their Pac-12 opener against Arizona. Then came last Friday night, and a date against the defending conference champion Stanford Cardinal.
The Huskies dominated the Cardinal, winning 44-6. More impressively, they physically beat up a Stanford team that has been known for the last 10 years to be one of the most physical programs in the nation. Sure, Stanford was missing a couple of starting corners and they were playing on a short week following a tough game against UCLA. But, that doesn’t take away from how Washington dominated the football game. The Huskies piled up eight sacks, forced and recovered two fumbles, and held preseason Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey to just 49 yards rushing and 79 total yards from scrimmage, which is his lowest total since becoming the full-time starter last season.
While the defense has been impressive, currently sitting fifth in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 12.8 points per game, the offense has been even better. Led by sophomore quarterback and sneaky Heisman candidate Jake Browning, the Huskies are averaging 45.4 points per game this season, which ranks seventh nationally. Browning’s development is the main reason why. He currently rates as the second-best passer in the country in passing efficiency with a 196.3 rating and a 17 to 2 touchdown to interception ratio.
You may be saying, Ryan, they’ve played one big game and it was at home against a Stanford team that was banged up. Yeah, you’re right. However, they didn’t struggle with Stanford. They blew them out. And in a year in which the Pac-12 once again looks to be without a truly dominant team, the Huskies have emerged as a real contender for a playoff spot. The old saying “you can only play the games that are on your schedule” applies here. The Huskies out of conference slate was bad, there’s no doubt. But, they’ve done exactly what a good team is supposed to do to bad teams: blow them out. Then, they beat up the biggest guy in their conference on Friday night. Are they on the same level of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson or Louisville? Not yet. But, now sitting at No. 5 in the nation, the Huskies schedule sets up pretty favorably the rest of the way and they can make a push for a playoff spot.
They’ve got to travel to Eugene this weekend to take on a struggling Oregon team, and they’ll be looking to break a streak of 12-straight losses to the Ducks. After that, their toughest test will be a road date against Utah on October 29th. USC and Arizona State have to travel to Seattle before they end the season with the Apple Cup against Washington State on the road. The current record of their remaining opponents is 18-15 and their toughest division game (Stanford) is already behind them. If you haven’t paid attention to the Huskies yet, it’s time to start.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.