Will Huskies go out with a bang in final Pac-12 football season?
Seattle Times columnist some amalgamation of West Coast football, the schools shifting somewhat over time but never the goal: to reign supreme over the geographic footprint in which it seemed it would always reside. Now, of course, that footprint is being smudged out by the machinations of realignment, which are wreaking havoc on every time-honored rivalry and connection in college football. After this season, the Huskies will take a giant leap across country and join the Big Ten Conference, a geographic incongruity — I would say bordering on inanity — that tears asunder all the decades of continuity in the Pacific Coast Conference, the Athletic Association of Western Universities (aka, The Big Five and the Big Six), the Pac-8, the Pac-10 and the Pac-12.
All of which makes this Husky football season a profoundly interesting, and significant, one. It was always, of course, going to be compelling, even before the university presidents at Washington and Oregon sent shock waves through the college football world by ditching the Pac-12 on Aug. 4.
Coming off an 11-2 season, with the heart of their elite offense returning as well as some defensive playmakers, Washington was instantly branded a national playoff contender — and rightly so. But now they will be trying to leave the Pac-12 in style — at least from a competitive standpoint. There is no graceful departure from a conference that is on the verge of collapse now that just two members, Washington State and Oregon State, are likely to be left to fend for themselves.
Washington was co-champion of the first incarnation of the conference in 1916, going 6-0-1 (the lone blemish a 0-0 tie against Oregon — which went on to beat the Huskies in the Rose Bowl). And now, 107 years later, they are vying to be the last champion of the final iteration of the Pac. What better way, from their perspective, to bring momentum, cache and buzz into their new home-away-from-home in the central and eastern time zones? They are well aware that behemoths Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State await (not to mention USC, UCLA and Oregon, their fish-out-of-water brethren — if you don’t count the Great Lakes — who will be seeking the same sort of Pac-12 parting gift this season).
“The Pac-12, with it being the last year for us — yeah, there’s nothing better than for us to go out on top and have an awesome season,’’ Husky coach Kalen DeBoer said Monday. “It’s going to be a really fun season from a fan standpoint. There’s so many good teams, so many exciting offenses, quarterback-led offenses at a high level.
” It will be a grueling task for the Huskies, because the conference has at least six schools that have legitimate aspirations for the title — Washington, which averaged nearly 40 points a game last year and has star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. back; USC, led by Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams; Oregon, which has come to believe conference supremacy is its birthright; Utah, a perennially gritty outfit that has won the past two titles; UCLA, which will have to replace quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson but has an array of talent; and Oregon State, which would love to tweak the departing schools on their way out by beating them all. The conference might never have had a better collection of experienced, high-level quarterbacks.
And it has never had such turmoil entering a season, with the four previously mentioned schools headed for the Big Ten; Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah headed for the Big 12; and Cal and Stanford likely headed for the ACC, while Washington State and Oregon State attempt to find as palatable a landing spot as possible. To DeBoer, however, “turmoil” is the wrong word. Now that the Huskies know where they’re going, he actually sees a more stable environment.
“I think having direction is so important for us as a coaching staff,’’ he said. “Now we understand what the future holds, and we’ve got to work for it. We can hear it in the recruits’ voices, those that are committed, in particular, but even the guys that we’re continuing to talk with.
If anything, I don’t consider it turmoil. I consider it positive that we have this direction now that we understand where we’re going. ” To get there with the flourish of a Pac-12 title will require the Huskies to unveil a defense that’s close to commensurate with its standout offense.
Penix was second in the nation in passing yards last year, helping UW unleash the nation’s second-best offense (515. 8 yards per game). With 1,000-yard receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan both returning along with a slew of other weapons, the Huskies should be able to overcome the loss of their prospective starter at running back, Cam Davis.
On defense, the Huskies will be striving to eliminate big plays by the opposition after allowing 251. 5 yards a game through the air, 100th in the country. But for a team that struggled defensively, they are filled with elite players.
The edge is well-manned with Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui; linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio is a pro prospect; and cornerback Jabbar Muhammad from Oklahoma State should help solidify what was a troublesome secondary last year. The secondary had just four interceptions in UW’s final 12 games after picking off three in the opener against Kent State. That needs to change, and the Huskies are quietly confident that a year in the system will lead to vast improvement in 2023.
“Some of the things we’re able to talk about now with them, it’s not 100-level stuff. It’s 400-level stuff. And that’s really exciting,’’ said Chuck Morrell, UW’s co-defensive coordinator.
If you worry about the Huskies getting complacent this year with all the accolades being thrown their way, rest assured DeBoer will remind them incessantly of the 45-38 loss to an Arizona State team that finished 3-9. Coupled with a loss to UCLA, that letdown kept Washington out of the Pac-12 title game and a possible berth in the national playoffs. Unlike last year, the Huskies play both USC and Utah — the former on the road, the latter at home.
Their fate might come down to the final month, when Washington faces USC, Utah, Oregon State and Washington State down the stretch in November. At that point, we’ll know if the Huskies will be leaving the Pac-12 with a bang or a whimper. .