We’re only answering one mailbag question today.
And that’s because it’s a biggie.
So, without any unnecessary and exaggerated introductions:
How can the Dawgs get back into the College Football Playoff in 2020? — Sean M.
First things first: There needs to be a season. I feel very strongly about this. If Washington doesn’t play football in the fall, the Huskies will not qualify for the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2016. You can screenshot this, tweet it, save it to the cloud, whatever. I said what I said, and I’m standing by it. You heard it here first.
But, assuming UW does indeed host Michigan on Sept. 5, here’s what else needs to happen.
First-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Donovan — and the pro-style scheme he’s installing — need to make a seamless transition to Washington. He needs to come in and immediately elevate UW’s offensive talent, much like another formerly little-known NFL assistant — Joe Brady — did at LSU last season. He needs to effectively implement a new scheme without the 15 spring practices typically used for such a task. He needs to buoy a UW offense that converted just 61.1% of red-zone trips into touchdowns last season, ranking 63rd nationally. (For comparison’s sake, the four CFP participants last fall each ranked no worse than 18th.)
Oh, and he needs to develop a starting quarterback. Whether that’s redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris or true freshman Ethan Garbers, the new starting signal-caller must efficiently distribute the ball to UW’s playmakers. Considering the strength of the Husky defense, he won’t need to step inside Husky Stadium and immediately become a star. But he can’t be a liability, either. And, perhaps most importantly, he can’t shrink from the moment — especially considering UW plays Pac-12 road games at Oregon, Utah, USC and Washington State this fall.
Said starting quarterback — whoever he is — needs to stay upright, too. Sirmon, Morris and Garbers are all primarily pocket passers, and UW will be breaking in three new starters on the offensive line. The Huskies have a formidable running-back rotation with Richard Newton, Sean McGrew and Cameron Davis all returning. But those guys need to stay healthy, which is certainly not a given considering A.) Newton’s injury history and B.) McGrew’s diminutive frame. If Scott Huff’s offensive line doesn’t exceed expectations, it might not matter who lines up behind it.
On the outside, UW needs playmakers to emerge at wide receiver. In 2019, the Huskies registered just 18 receptions of 30 yards or more (72nd nationally), the program’s lowest total since 2015. In 2016, when UW rode an undefeated regular season to a Pac-12 title and a CFP berth, the Huskies completed 30 passes of 30 yards or more. Second-year UW wide-receivers coach Junior Adams has no shortage of eligible options. But are any of them John Ross or Dante Pettis? Are any of them — perhaps Puka Nacua or Terrell Bynum or Ty Jones or Marquis Spiker or Austin Osborne or Jordan Chin or Jalen McMillan or Rome Odunze or Sawyer Racanelli — actually even close?
On the other side, UW’s defense needs to be every bit as good as it projects to be — and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and co-defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe need to help make that happen.
To put it bluntly, the UW defensive line must be consistently dominant. A group that features seniors Levi Onwuzurike and Josiah Bronson, sophomores Tuli Letuligasenoa and Taki Taimani and redshirt freshmen Jacob Bandes, Faatui Tuitele and Sama Paama is certainly capable of that. But “consistency” is the key word. In 2019, UW allowed Pac-12 opponents to rush for an average of 4.03 yards per carry — surrendering more than 4 yards per rush in conference play for the first time since 2013.
And, to be fair, that’s not all on the defensive line. UW’s inside linebackers must be markedly improved. This position, in fact, will likely determine where the Husky defense’s ceiling actually sits. Sophomore Edefuan Ulofoshio appeared to emerge late last season. UW inside-linebackers coach Bob Gregory needs the former walk-on from Anchorage, Alaska, to continue to ascend, and he needs to develop more reliable run-stoppers from a group that includes redshirt sophomores Jackson Sirmon and M.J. Tafisi and redshirt freshmen Josh Calvert, Daniel Heimuli, Miki Ah You and Alphonzo Tuputala.
Elsewhere on the second level, UW’s outside linebackers must take another positive step in the pass rush. Junior Joe Tryon (12.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks) and senior Ryan Bowman (9.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 INT) did their part in 2019, and it’s reasonable to expect even more this fall. Plus, their supporting cast should be improved; sophomores Laiatu Latu and Zion Tupuola-Fetui and freshman Sav’ell Smalls will all likely earn reps on the outside.
In the back end, it’s pretty simple. The Huskies are expected to have one of the best secondaries in the country … and all they have to do is match those expectations. UW returns starters at nickelback (Elijah Molden), cornerback (Trent McDuffie and Keith Taylor) and safety (Cameron Williams and Asa Turner). Molden was UW’s best player last season — piling up a team-highs in tackles (79), pass breakups (13), interceptions (4) and forced fumbles (3). McDuffie was also arguably the country’s premier freshman corner.
We know Jimmy Lake loves to use an abundance of defensive backs. And this season, especially, he should have every reason to do so.
Also, since Lake is indeed a first-year head coach, he needs to pay particular attention to clock management — an area where Chris Petersen seemed to occasionally struggle in recent years.
And, more broadly, UW needs to finish games this fall. In their eight wins last season, the Huskies outscored their opponents 143-61 in the second half. But in their five losses, they were outscored 75-50 — and, to make matters worse, they were leading three of those five games heading into the break.
On the subject of finishing games, Lake and Co. need placekicker Peyton Henry to continue to come up big when it counts. The junior and former walk-on connected on 19 of 21 field goals and all 49 extra points in 2019. UW fans don’t need to be reminded how one missed kick in a key moment can lose a game or alter a season.
Which brings us to the grand finale:
Washington can’t lose any games in 2020. If the goal is to reach the College Football Playoff, then the Huskies need to be undefeated. They need to beat Michigan in the season opener and take care of Oregon, Utah, USC and Washington State on the road as well. They need to beat Cal, which has been easier said than done. And they need to take care of W-H-O-M-E-V-E-R in the Pac-12 title game, too. To counteract the Pac-12’s diminished national perception, UW simply can’t allow for any doubt.
So there’s your answer, Sean. Now let’s see if the Dawgs can do it.