Let’s say there’s a season.
Let’s say, for the sake of this exercise, that the Washington Huskies play all 12 football games on their schedule this fall. Let’s say that the coronavirus storm cloud parts just enough to allow Jimmy Lake to make his highly anticipated UW coaching debut.
In that scenario, which of UW’s scheduled games are the most (or least) intriguing?
Commence the countdown, starting with the snoozers.
12. Sacramento State, Sept. 12, Husky Stadium
The most intriguing aspect of this game may be whether it actually happens. This month, the California State University System — which includes Sacramento State — announced that most classes at its campuses will remain online this fall. That could make it difficult to justify fielding a college football team. Still, UW athletic director Jen Cohen said last week that “based on what we know today, we’re expecting to still play them.”
One player who is undoubtedly rooting for the game to take place is Ariel Ngata, the former UW outside linebacker who announced his transfer to Sacramento State this offseason.
11. Utah State, Sept. 19, Husky Stadium
Utah State will get to test itself against both of Washington’s Pac-12 representatives this season, hosting Washington State on Sept. 3 before traveling to UW. The Aggies will have to do so without quarterback Jordan Love, who the Green Bay Packers selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft.
The Huskies were 4-1 against Mountain West opponents in the Chris Petersen era, and it’s hard to imagine that trend reversing here.
10. Arizona, Oct. 23, Husky Stadium
Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin must replace quarterback Khalil Tate, who some may have assumed would stay in Tucson forever. It’s true sophomore Grant Gunnell’s time to shine under center. Gunnell did impress in brief flashes as a freshman, completing 65.2% of his passes with nine touchdowns and just one interception in eight games.
We’ll see what he can do on the road against perhaps the Pac-12’s premier defense.
9. Oregon State, Oct. 10, Husky Stadium
In a battle between current-and-former UW assistants, Jimmy Lake’s defense got the best of Jonathan Smith’s offense last season, as the Huskies held the Beavers to 119 total yards and zero offensive points in a 19-7 win. UW defensive back Elijah Molden actually credited his time around Smith with aiding a fourth-down interception, saying that “obviously he was with us my freshman year, and in practice he would always get me with that same route.”
In all, UW has won eight consecutive games against Oregon State. The Lake-Smith duel remains the most intriguing aspect of this match up.
8. Colorado, Nov. 21, Husky Stadium
If you were to rank UW’s least inspiring performances of the 2019 season, the 20-14 loss at Colorado might just top that list. Against a 4-6 Buffs team with a first-year coach, the Huskies were thoroughly beaten. They allowed 207 rushing yards and five yards per carry. This wasn’t a fluke. It was a physical mismatch.
So, sure, UW should have plenty of motivation to right that wrong in Seattle on Senior Day.
7. Stanford, Nov. 7, Husky Stadium
If you were to rank UW’s least inspiring performances of the 2019 season, and you didn’t bother watching the Colorado game, the Huskies’ 23-13 loss at 2-3 Stanford would absolutely top your list. The Cardinal outgained the Huskies, 482-294. UW scored three points in the second half. The game wasn’t as close as the score. It was an offensive abomination.
These teams have traded wins for each of the past five seasons. So it might be UW’s turn to cash in.
6. USC, Nov. 14, Los Angeles
Lake and Co. outmaneuvered the Air Raid offense twice last season, the first time coming in a 28-14 win over USC. The Trojans managed just 163 passing yards as UW defensive backs bracketed USC’s top wide receivers and dared its opponent to run.
It’s worth noting that USC’s breakout freshman quarterback — Kedon Slovis — didn’t play in that game. Can Lake achieve the same result against a star QB, on the road, without the benefit of a schematic strategy that took its opponent by surprise?
Time will tell.
5. Utah, Oct. 17, Salt Lake City
This is not the same Utah team you’re used to seeing. Seven Utes were selected in the 2020 NFL draft. Utah lost the heart of its dominant 2019 defense, and quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss must also be replaced. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley is the odds-on favorite to take the job under center.
And, sure, UW is 12-2 all-time against Utah. But this game will still be played on the road against a Kyle Whittingham team inside Rice-Eccles Stadium, which means it won’t be easy.
4. Cal, Oct. 31, Berkeley, Calif.
No time like Halloween to exorcise some demons, huh? UW has been upset by Cal in excruciating fashion in back-to-back seasons — an offensive no-show in a 12-10 defeat in 2018 followed by a 20-19 loss after a lightning delay last September. Don’t forget that Washington native and former Cal linebacker Evan Weaver guaranteed a victory last season … and he followed through.
In former UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s fourth season as coach, Cal is a trendy pick to make a run in the Pac-12. But the Golden Bears may have to get through UW to do that. And you can bet the Huskies won’t be looking past Cal.
3. Washington State, Nov. 27, Pullman
Shortly after being hired as Washington State’s new coach, Nick Rolovich installed an Apple Cup countdown clock in the Cougars’ locker room. Of course, this rivalry is always intriguing, but the infusion of two new coaches in Lake and Rolovich should give it a refreshing twist. And don’t forget that the last time UW arrived in Pullman, the Huskies snatched a snowy 28-15 victory to earn a berth in the Pac-12 title game while simultaneously puncturing their rivals’ Rose Bowl hopes.
So, yeah, this should be fun.
2. Oregon, Oct. 3, Eugene, Ore.
UW-Oregon doesn’t require much in the way of explanation. But if Lake is looking to make a statement in his first season as the Huskies’ coach, here’s where he needs to do it. The rival Ducks are the hottest program in the Pac-12 right now, both on the field and in the recruiting realm. The high-school prospects both programs fight over will undoubtedly be watching. And UW has lost two consecutive games to Oregon by a total of seven points.
No excuses. Lake’s tenure will be defined, in part, by his team’s performance against its primary rivals. That all starts here.
1. Michigan, Sept. 5, Husky Stadium
You only get one shot to make a first impression.
And Lake will do that, positively or negatively, in one of the premier nonconference match ups of the 2020 college football season.
If it’s going to return to national prominence, Washington needs to win high-profile Power Five games outside of the Pac-12. It didn’t do it against Ohio State in 2019 or Auburn in 2018 or Penn State in 2017 or Alabama in 2016.
The Pac-12 needs this. Lake needs this. First-year offensive coordinator John Donovan needs this. The list goes on and on.
The Jimmy Lake Era will officially start on Sept. 5 — but with a bang, or a whimper?