Washington Huskies defensive back Kevin King understands the nature of positive buzz surrounding his team this offseason.
“The hype train comes, and the hype train goes,” King said at Pac-12 Media Days last week in Hollywood.
Seattle’s the latest stop for that locomotive, and it’s come barreling in for the Huskies. Entering head coach Chris Petersen’s third season with the program, Washington’s the trendy pick to knock Stanford and Oregon from the perch on which they’ve resided every year since 2009.
ESPN, Athlon Sports and others tabbed Washington as the favorite in the North, which ostensibly makes the Dawgs favorites in the Pac-12, with the North claiming every championship since expansion.
Here on this very site, yours truly has trumpeted the Huskies’ potential dating back to the second half of last season.
Hype and expectations may be an intangible, but there’s an odd effect they seem to have on programs. A preseason darling falters under the weight of hype every fall, inevitably.
Some of the most noteworthy, recent examples reside in the Pac-12. Arizona’s face-plant after opening the ’99 season ranked in the Top 5 comes to mind; so, too, does Arizona State falling to 6-7 last year after head coach Todd Graham and quarterback Mike Bercovici openly talked national championship at 2015 Media Days.
Even a season that would — and should –otherwise be deemed successful can get downplayed when juxtaposed with lofty hype. I was up close with UCLA in 2014, a campaign that opened with a number of national pundits touting the Bruins for the College Football Playoff.
UCLA finished 10-3 and ranked in the Top 15, but that was seemingly treated as an afterthought, coming off a summer of Playoff (and season) of Playoff talk. Hardly a week passed when head coach Jim Mora wasn’t asked about “expectations.”
So what sends the proverbial hype train pulling out of a program’s station? Complacency might be one answer.
“It definitely can, and that’s what we’re working against,” King said. “Coach Pete reiterates…all the time, we can’t be complacent. I relay that a lot to the team, especially the defense. It’s easy for the defense to get complacent, especially, because there’s a lot of hype around the defense and what we did last year.”
In 2015, the defense was indeed the hallmark for the Washington Huskies. Allowing just 18.8 points per game, the Washington Huskies boasted the stingiest scoring defense in the Pac-12.
“But that was last year,” King added. “Last time we stepped on the field, we’re 7-6.”
Tight end Darrell Daniels echoed the sentiment, saying: “We haven’t done anything.”
That indirectly brings up another possible explanation for teams routinely falling short of expectations. Sometimes, if not oftentimes, they’re built on potential over production.
Yes, Washington capped 2015 with a bang, blowing out Arizona, Washington State and Southern Miss over the course of the final month-and-change. And, yes, the Huskies lost three games by a combined 15 points. Reach the end zone once more in each, and Washington goes from 7-6 to 10-3.
Even in double-digit-point losses to Utah and Arizona State, the Huskies were within 11 and 10 points — hardly insurmountable differences to make up.
Of course, the hype building steam for 2016 is predicated on an assumption Washington will make up such differences. Right now, it’s just that: assumption.
“It’s a complete waste of time and crap shoot for the first five weeks,” Petersen said. “I don’t
know who’s any good. The teams change so dramatically.”
The Las Vegas implication of a crap shoot fits, given like most casino games, setting expectations works off an educated guess and a success rate over 50 percent is cause for celebration.
Emphasis there, at least is on educated. And a learned approach to evaluating the Washington Huskies does support the hype.
Empirical evidence says the defense will be just as good again. Defenses coordinated by Pete Kwiatkowski have routinely been among the nation’s best, whether at Boise State or Washington.
Four of the six defenses Pete Kwiatkowski has coordinated at Boise State and #UDub have yielded less than 20 points per game
— Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello) July 21, 2016
Experience often begets improvement, and the Washington Huskies’ roster is among the most experienced in the nation with eight returning starters on offense, and seven on that impressive defense.
The skill-position players garner much of the attention for the offense, with freshmen phenoms Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin now sophomores, but the less celebrated offensive line may be where a year of playing translates the most for Washington’s title aspirations.
“That group will probably be the most improved this year,” Daniels said. “Any live reps out there on the field will help you regardless. Those guys have been through a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries. Those guys have pulled it together and done great.”
Improved protection is a must for the Washington Huskies. The 34 sacks allowed a season ago ranked the Dawgs No. 102 nationally.
Perhaps the somewhat tempered hype surrounding Browning — an irony, given the overall expectations placed on Washington — can be attributed to the collapsing pocket he often faced. Browning certainly hasn’t generated the level of buzz UCLA’s Josh Rosen has, getting shine as a Heisman hopeful after his own freshman year spent quarterbacking a Pac-12 offense.
Petersen stressed Browning has areas in game that can improve, but emphasized the play of those around the quarterback.
“If those guys elevate their game; if that O-line elevates their game, if our tight ends take the next
step, if our wide receivers can start making some really spectacular plays, I think everything is going
to change on our offense in terms of momentum,” Petersen said.
Strides offensively would fill that missing piece — the difference between 7-6 and much more. How much more? No one can say for sure, but the hype train will really get rolling if the Washington Huskies find the answer.