2020 Team Preview: Can Washington Bounce Back?

The Washington Huskies had raw talent last season, but they simply didn’t put their talent to good use. Washington took double-digit leads against Pac-12 championship contenders Utah and Oregon at home, but blew leads to both teams. Utah and Oregon wound up playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and Washington’s attempt to defend its 2018 Pac-12 title quickly went sideways. Washington built leads but couldn’t protect them. The Huskies also stumbled to California for the second straight season. Then a huge and unexpected change occurred in Seattle. How the program deals with that change will determine the fate of the team in 2020.

Offseason Changes

There was no awareness this was coming, and it blindsided not only people within the Washington program, but people around the Pac-12 and the whole country: Chris Petersen, who built Washington into a two-time Pac-12 champion and gave the program its first-ever College Football Playoff appearance in 2016, followed by its first Rose Bowl appearance in 18 years, abruptly retired from coaching, citing burnout. Petersen had built an enormously successful program at Boise State University and then went to Washington to see if he could thrive in a Power Five conference. He struggled in his first two seasons but then hit the jackpot in 2016, getting Washington to the playoff semifinals in the Peach Bowl against Nick Saban and Alabama. The Pac-12 has made the playoff only twice in five years; Washington in 2016 was one of the two teams, Oregon in 2014 the other. Petersen then led Washington to the 2019 Rose Bowl against Ohio State. The Huskies hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl since the 2001 game when they beat Purdue and a quarterback named Drew Brees.

Jimmy Lake, Petersen’s defensive coordinator, takes over as head coach. His biggest task was to hire a new offensive coordinator, and he settled on former Penn State and Vanderbilt assistant John Donovan, a hire which drew puzzled looks from people who noticed Donovan’s unimpressive resume. The Huskies won’t have Jacob Eason at quarterback after he chose to forgo his senior season. The Huskies’ offense is in a very uncertain place.

The Huskies Will Succeed If…

Lake can maximize the defense. Lake was an excellent defensive coordinator for Petersen. Even when the offense struggled, the defense kept the team in games. This is the anchor of the team in Lake’s first season as head coach. Though Joe Tyron and other key defensive players on the 2019 team are gone, Washington has recruited and – crucially – developed good defensive players over the years. If the Huskies reach their defensive potential, their offensive limitations can be shielded to an extent. If Washington can play its two best defensive games against Pac-12 North rivals Oregon and California, the season could still be a success.

The Huskies Will Fail If…

Their offense under John Donovan falls apart. Washington has a new quarterback this season after Eason’s departure, and last year’s offense – even with good talent – crumbled against California and Stanford and a few other opponents in the conference. Washington has lagged behind other teams in the Pac-12 in terms of offensive coaching and scheme. Talent has held the Huskies together. The coaching needs to be good, and if it isn’t, the Huskies could unravel.

Prediction

The John Donovan hire could be an albatross for a program which needed to modernize its offense and attract elite receivers to the program, something it hasn’t had since John Ross in the 2016 season when the Huskies made the College Football Playoff. This season is set up to fail, with Lake realizing he needs a lot more upside from his offense. Oregon and California are better teams in the Pac-12 North right now.

Prediction: 3rd in the Pac-12 North

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