Welcome back.

Oh, how we’ve missed you — you, the college football fan; the purple-clad, passionate, sailgating obsessive; the smiling, swearing, throat-straining face a cardboard cutout could never replace; the optimist; the alum; the beer-drinking boo-bird and the backseat referee; the grill-master, selflessly disseminating sausages and asking only for empty plates; the kid in the hand-me-down Husky jersey, who lives and dies with each drive, but always has hope.

Last fall, UW played four football games that felt like exhibitions — empty, lacking, like the stadium itself. While everything on the field looked familiar, billowing purple smoke and piped-in crowd noise couldn’t conceal the fact that this sport was missing its soul.

“With ‘The Greatest Setting,’ obviously we have the Cascade Mountains, the Olympic Mountains, Lake Washington, the beauty, the unique structure of our stadium,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said last month. “But really, what makes ‘The Greatest Setting’, ‘The Greatest Setting’ is our fans, and how passionate they are about Husky football, and how they’re there supporting us from the first quarter to the end.

“I’m excited for them to come out and watch our team. I know our team’s excited for them to be in the stands supporting them, and we want to make them proud. Every single day we go out there, with these meetings and practices, to prepare to go out there on Sept. 4 and give Husky Nation what they want.”

More than anything, Husky Nation wants a winner.

And starting Saturday, they might just get one.

Watch our 2021 Pac-12 football preview with Ryan Leaf

After all, this is truly a team of returns. Lake is returning for his second season as the Huskies’ head coach, while offensive coordinator John Donovan returns for a second run in his pro-style system. The offense returns its starting quarterback (Dylan Morris), its All-Pac-12 tight end (Cade Otton), its entire offensive line and six (!) scholarship running backs. The defense returns nine starters as well, led by cornerback Trent McDuffie and inside linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio.  

Heck, Zion Tupuola-Fetui — the All-American outside linebacker, who tore his Achilles tendon in April — may even return at some point, too.


Plus, fans won’t be the only ones returning to Husky Stadium this fall. UW also hosts Oregon, Arizona State, Cal, Washington State and UCLA — playing its most formidable Pac-12 foes at home, while avoiding USC and Utah altogether.

It should come as little surprise, then, that this season preview section was built on the overarching theme of “returns” — fans’ return to Husky Stadium (masked, vaccinated, inebriated or otherwise); Ulofoshio’s return to Nigeria, where his work ethic was instilled; Morris’ imperfect but unflappable return to the Husky huddle; Lake’s return for a second season to make a proper first impression; and maybe, just maybe, the Huskies’ return to glory.

Of course, that doesn’t mean everything is returning to normal. While the cardboard cutouts have (hopefully) been eternally exiled from their stadium seats, the COVID-19 pandemic persists — and vaccinations could soon be required at Husky Stadium. “The Greatest Setting in College Football” is not quite the same.

But at 5 p.m. on Saturday, boats will bob in Husky Harbor. “Purple Haze” will play. Waves of woofs will shatter the silence.

That seems like a start.

It’s the return of fans (finally!) and key players as optimism surrounds the Huskies and Cougars. Get ready for the return of college football with our 10-page special section coming Friday in print and all week online.

College football preview 2021