With renovated facilities and one of the most accomplished coaches of the 21st century at the helm, it's not hard to be optimistic about the future of Washington football. That optimism is spreading, with the Huskies becoming a trendy sleeper pick for the 2016 season -- so much so that the words "sleeper" and "darkhorse" may no longer apply.
For 2016 in particular, the hope for Washington is that things start looking a lot like the past, because this offseason's rapid switch from 7-6 record to preseason darling has a precedent.
The preseason AP top 25 in 2000 included what might have looked like a curious choice in the top 25. Coming off a 7-5 season in Rick Neuheisel's debut in 1999, Washington found a spot at No. 13, pegged as the preseason favorite in the Pac-10. While Washington had not won 10 games in a season since its 1991 national championship, voters had confidence in Neuheisel, who produced a pair of 10-2 records at Colorado, and they had confidence in the Huskies' returning talent, led by star quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo.
Washington rewarded the voters' confidence. The Huskies upset a loaded Miami team -- ultimately costing the Hurricanes a shot at the national title -- and they finished 11-1. They lost only at Oregon by a TD, and they went on to win the Pac-10 title and beat Purdue in the Rose Bowl, earning them the No. 3 ranking in the final AP poll, their third-best finish ever. Consensus before the season predicted a Washington breakthrough, and while a lot of preseason predictions always turn out wrong, in this case the Huskies met the hype and even exceeded it.
Ever since then, Washington has come up short in trying to recapture past magic, losing exactly six games in five of the last six seasons, which was a step up from the notorious two (2005), one (2004) and zero (2008) win seasons of last decade but still has felt like treading water. Washington has risen from rock bottom but can't stop hitting its head against a ceiling. When Steve Sarkisian left for USC at the end of a 9-4 season in 2013, nobody's feelings were hurt, particularly when Washington landed Chris Petersen from Boise State as his replacement. Petersen went 92-12 at Boise State, winning the Fiesta Bowl twice and finishing undefeated twice, and the assumption was that Petersen could finally raise that ceiling.
He has yet to do it, going 15-12 in two years. In other words, he has lost as many games in two seasons in Seattle as he did in eight at Boise State. Now, however, Petersen may have the perfect opportunity to launch the Huskies on that upward trajectory. Just because Washington has failed to get over the hump over the last 15 years doesn't mean that the program's chances of climbing under Petersen should be dismissed.
Start with what we know about last season, when advanced numbers liked Washington a lot more than the team's 7-6 record. The Huskies were ranked 13th by Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, 26th by Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System and 25th by Jeff Sagarin. While aided by the absence of Washington State QB Luke Falk in the Apple Cup, they blew out the Cougars and also blew out Arizona, and they lost tight games to Boise State, California and Oregon by six points or less. They led the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed on defense, and their offense went through understandable growing pains with a new-look line, a freshman QB in Jake Browning, a freshman RB in Myles Gaskin and the season-long absence of injured playmaker John Ross at receiver.
Washington was very young on offense yet remained stingy on defense despite losing four of the top 44 picks in the 2015 draft from its defense (Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, Marcus Peters and Hau'oli Kikaha). The Huskies were not a great team, but their weaknesses were understandable, and they played a little bit better than their record indicates.
With a significant number of key contributors back and a painfully young offense looking more seasoned, it's not hard to see why the Washington bandwagon has filled up.
1. Browning is poised for a step forward
Behind a young offensive line, it's no surprise that Browning was inconsistent as a true freshman. In his first start, in front of a national audience, he looked like a deer in the headlights against Boise State, averaging 4.3 yards per pass attempt. That erratic play continued in road games for most of the season. Still, in the end Browning completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards, with 16 TDs and 10 picks, edging more acclaimed freshman Josh Rosen of UCLA in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt.
It shouldn't be a surprise: Browning was a four-star recruit ranked No. 71 overall by 247Sports' class of 2015 composite rankings. He shattered records in high school at Folsom in California, throwing 91 touchdown passes in his senior season alone.
Now a 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore, Browning is a strong candidate for a breakout season, particularly if the line improves in front of him. Top receiver Jaydon Mickens and tight end Joshua Perkins are gone, but Ross returns from a knee injury after averaging 21.8 yards per catch in 2014. He's joined by a pair of improving targets in Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius.
2. Washington can lean on Gaskin with confidence
A three-star recruit from Seattle, Gaskin technically started in only six games, but he emerged as the Huskies' workhorse lead runner. At just 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, Gaskin carried the ball 227 times for 1,302 yards and 14 TDs, cracking the 100-yard mark eight times, with quick feet, burst and impressive lateral agility.
Petersen regularly churned out impressive, productive running backs at Boise State, and he has found his next star to build the offense around at Washington.
3. This can be the Pac-12's best defense again
It's seem impossible that Washington's defense actually improved last season, given all the production that was lost, but that's exactly what happened. The Huskies held 10 teams under four yards per rush (partly because of their 34 sacks in 13 games), and they allowed just 11 passing touchdowns all season. While they lose top pass rushers Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney and safety Brian Clay, the depth chart remains well-stocked.
It starts in the secondary, where athletic safety Budda Baker has All-America potential and cornerback Sidney Jones is also a first-team All-Pac-12 player. Leading tacklers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria both return at linebacker, and nose tackle Elijah Qualls is an excellent anchor up front. The Huskies need to replenish the pass rush again, but they have one of the nation's best defensive backfields and are strong up the middle, which should help minimize the impact of any drop in pass-rush production.
4. Petersen has had two seasons to build a foundation
Petersen won at least 10 games in each of his first seven seasons as a head coach before going 8-4 in his final year at Boise State, then 8-6 and 7-6 the last two years at Washington. Given his track record, though, it's reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt.
At Boise State, he proved to be a fantastic coach in terms of finding talent and developing it in his system. After the usual transition period, he now has had two years to get older players to buy in while getting his own recruits on campus. The defense is already capable of winning at a high level, while the offense has a pair of sophomores as the leaders with a year of starting under their belts.
With upgraded facilities, Washington appeared to be an ideal landing spot for Petersen when he finally decided to step up to a Pac-12 job. He can start proving it this year.
5. The Pac-12 is winnable
This isn't to say that the Pac-12 is weak; it's just that the Pac-12 may lack a truly elite team. In the North, Stanford has the potential to compete for a playoff spot again behind Christian McCaffrey, but it has to find a new quarterback and rebuild both of its fronts. Oregon has lots of speed and playmakers, but it is rebuilding its defense and also needs to pick a new QB after bringing in another FCS graduate transfer, Dakota Prukop. Washington State is dangerous with the combination of QB Luke Falk and coach Mike Leach, but the defense is still beatable and the Cougars are unlikely to take another step forward from last year's impressive 9-4 record.
There is a lot of parity in the Pac-12, potentially in both divisions. Washington has a cakewalk nonconference schedule (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) and then draws four Pac-12 home games and five on the road. It avoids UCLA from the South, but it also avoids Colorado. It gets Stanford and USC at home, but it has tough road trips to Oregon and Utah. After that easy start, the key may be the three-game stretch to open Pac-12 play: at Arizona, vs. Stanford, at Oregon.
Washington has mostly been a tease in recent seasons, entering the AP top 25 in five of the last six years but finishing there only once, when it went 9-4 in 2013 and ended up 25th. Given that Oregon and Stanford have had a stranglehold on the Pac-12 North, and given that Washington has lost 12 in a row to the Ducks and seven of eight to the Cardinal, skepticism is warranted.
The gap has started to close, though, and while it's possible that Washington is still a year away from truly breaking through into the top tier of the Pac-12 -- after all, Browning and Gaskin are still just sophomores -- the Huskies finally have the pieces in place to change their fortunes.
Every season brings fast turnarounds -- Iowa went from 7-6 to 12-2 and North Carolina went from 6-7 to 11-3 in 2015 -- and while Washington is still in prove-it territory, the pieces that Petersen has assembled make the Huskies as strong of a candidate as anybody to take that leap forward in 2016.