Although considered the underdog in what will be the last of the four-team College Football Playoff, Washington is a battle-tested, undefeated team who will face off against Texas in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Huskies, representing the Pac-12 conference (RIP), are loaded with offensive talent lead by head coach Kalen DeBoer. Max Vrooman, the site manager at UW Dawg Pound, breaks down four reasons why you might want to consider Washington to be the next team to the lift up the trophy.
Everyone knows that Washington has a great offense by now. Michael Penix Jr. has led all power conference quarterbacks in passing yards for each of the past two seasons. He also happened to have finished in second place for the Heisman Trophy this year. That’s a pretty good place to start.
You don’t get to be a top-five offense in the country by nearly every metric (SP , yards per play, etc.) just by having a great quarterback though. Washington is loaded at every spot along the offense.
The receiver corps gets the majority of the attention. Biletnikoff award finalist Rome Odunze finished second in the country with 1,428 receiving yards. And in case you missed any Pac-12 games this season, the “Penix to Odunze back shoulder fade” was among the most deadly plays in college football this season. He’s joined by Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan — each of whom has reached 1,000 receiving yards in one of the last two seasons (McMillan missed several games this year but is back healthy now; more on that later). If opponents want to double team Odunze, then they’ll have the struggle of facing two other elite receivers.
Early in the season the Huskies relied almost exclusively on their deep passing game. With that, the notion arose that they couldn’t run the ball and therefore weren’t balanced. Running back Dillon Johnson has thoroughly demolished that idea. Over Washington’s final six games against teams that finished with a winning record, Johnson ran for 792 yards with 10 touchdowns. He eclipsed 1,100 yards on the season despite being a non-factor in Washington’s first two games as he recovered from an injury. He has become perhaps the most well-rounded running back in the country when you factor in his tremendous pass blocking skills.
Other players good at pass blocking? Washington’s offensive line, who just won the Joe Moore award given to the most outstanding O-line unit in college football. The Huskies gave up the second fewest sacks in the country this year despite protecting a quarterback who had more attempts 20 yards downfield than anyone else in the country.
That all coalesces into an offense that is fifth in rushing success rate and sixth in passing success rate. You can’t reliably keep the Huskies off schedule and that means they are absolutely going to score points. Last I checked, that was helpful to winning football games.
There’s no question that Washington stands out when you look at every College Football Playoff roster when it comes to talent based on recruiting rankings. Michigan, Texas, and Alabama all have recruited at a much higher level than Washington over the past several years (and before that as well).
There’s a reason that the Blue Chip Ratio is generally viewed as a good guide to determine who can win the national championship. You need to have a certain level of talent and depth to be capable of beating other elite teams in the final matchups of the season. It’s very unlikely that a team is going to be able to coach up and develop enough three-star players to beat the absolute best of the best.
That sounds good in theory. But Washington and Kalen DeBoer are looking to challenge that sentiment.
Washington’s quarterback was a three-star recruit, but finished second in the Heisman voting and has led power conference QBs in passing yards in consecutive seasons. Their top edge rusher Bralen Trice was a three-star recruit. He has led FBS players in quarterback pressures in consecutive seasons. Their left tackle Troy Fautanu was a three-star recruit. He’s a two-time all-conference 1st-team selection.
The Huskies have four players who rank in the top-32 of Jordan Reid’s NFL Draft Big Board, tied with Alabama for the most. That list includes Penix, Trice, and Fautanu listed above. Washington is at a clear disadvantage if you define talent solely by recruiting ranking. But there’s an argument to be made that this Husky roster has just as much elite talent as any other team left in the field.
Every team suffers injuries over the course of a season and the Huskies are no exception. Projected starting running back Cam Davis went out for the year in August. Starting center Matteo Mele and cornerback Davon Banks each were lost for the season during Washington’s second game.
Plenty of other key pieces missed games over the course of the year but everyone except those three came back for Washington’s win over Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. That played a huge part in the Huskies pulling off that betting upset.
Starting safety Dom Hampton played every game but it was an adventure at the other safety spot opposite him. Week 1 starter Asa Turner played in four regular season games due to injury and backup Kamren Fabiculanan was able to play more than a handful of snaps in only six games. Next in line — Vincent Nunley missed several games for undisclosed reasons as well (he is now one of just two Huskies to enter the transfer portal). All were missing for the worst defensive performance of the season when a bad Stanford offense put up 33 points versus Washington when the team was playing their fourth-string safety.
Washington’s offense was a complete juggernaut over the first three weeks of the season when they averaged over 46 points per game. That was with the best three-man receiving tandem in the sport all healthy and available: Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Jalen McMillan. Going up for a contested catch early in the second half, McMillan injured his knee and it took him months to feel fully himself again. He made four attempts to return from the injury before finally getting his first catch since Washington State in the season finale.
The Huskies finally got all of them back fully healthy against Oregon and each made impact plays. Washington’s defense held Oregon to a season low in points scored while McMillan had nine catches for 131 yards. It’s possible that someone gets hurt in practice leading up to the Sugar Bowl but otherwise the Dawgs are as healthy as you can hope to be at this point in the season.
That good injury fortune comes despite Washington playing one of the toughest schedules this season. The Huskies had the best resume of any team this season and finished No. 1 in strength of record by most systems.
There were eight teams in the Pac-12 that were ranked in the AP Top 25 poll after Week 3. The conference had the best early season performance of any conference in the country. By season’s end the Pac-12 finished with four teams ranked in the top 25, but Washington went undefeated.
The Huskies defeated six teams that won at least seven games including a pair of wins against the most highly ranked opponent they faced (Oregon). Those seven total victories against teams with a winning record was the most of any of the teams that made the College Football Playoff.
Yes, many of those games were close. Washington ended the season having won 10 consecutive games by 10 or fewer points. It’s possible, if not logical to look at that fact and think that regression is due to finally come for the Huskies. But this team has numerous reps playing well in close games that no team in the country will be as prepared or as confident should Washington find itself down with limited time remaining. It took Michael Penix Jr. only two plays and less than 30 seconds to drive 57 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown over Oregon in Seattle in what many consider to have been the game of the year.
And the offense isn’t the only unit that comes up big when the lights get bright. Washington’s defense is clearly the weakest unit on the team. But they haven’t given up more than seven points in the 4th quarter since Week 4 when the Huskies emptied out their bench up 40 points against California. No team scored to take the lead on Washington during the final 12 minutes of a game this season.
Should either the Sugar Bowl or the National Championship game come down to the wire, there’s no team that has shown time and again that they have what it takes against tough competition to emerge with a victory better than Washington.