Washington rolled out the red carpet for Chris Petersen last September, when Boise State took a trip west to Seattle, and then took the red carpet, rolled up the Broncos and tossed them into Lake Washington y'all come back now, and you, Petersen, in particular.
Less than five months later, Petersen took the leap. It had been long in the making, though never beyond cursory interest: Petersen was always involved with this team and that, due to reputation or otherwise, but ended each season where he began: Boise State. Until Washington, of course.
Perhaps an up-close look at Washington provided the impetus. The Huskies gained 592 yards of offense 324 through the air, 268 on the ground converted 11-of-15 on third down, racked up 33 first downs and thoroughly dominated the most consistently dominating program in college football, even if this specific team was not of the vintage variety.
Perhaps Petersen couldn't help but pay attention to four assets on clear and unyielding display: Washington's locale, Washington's new facilities, Washington's obvious commitment to the program and Washington's wildly overlooked and underrated stable of young talent that the Huskies' roster featured just six senior starters, for example.
Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Washington hit the marks on the field, as noted, but also off, fitting Petersen's Northwest roots and desire to maintain an under-the-radar lifestyle. Washington's bigger than Boise State; it's significantly smaller than USC.
Perhaps we should blame the changing tides of college football. The leader of the most lovable underdogs in college football had done all he could do at Boise, winning games at a clip unseen in the history of college football, and seemed to view the move toward a College Football Playoff as detrimental, not beneficial, to his hopes of winning a national title.
It was just time for a new challenge, Petersen told USA TODAY Sports' George Schroeder in April. It's really hard to put into words, other than it was just kind of a feel. I loved Boise, loved my time there. It was great. That's why I was so careful.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Sarkisian's confidence in his program bright future seems contagious: Washington has accumulated enough talent to eventually leap past the seven-win hurdle in a single bound, reclaiming its spot as one of the Pac-12's flag-bearers. To me, the program needs one more year.
In a nutshell: Washington's breakthrough lifted Sarkisian to USC, though he would have been high on the Trojans' checklist even had the Huskies remained in the seven-win rut. Last season ended with nine wins, actually, the program's most in a single season since 2000, and created a sense of momentum increased exponentially by Petersen's arrival. First things first: Washington turned a corner sort of. It was a banner season in the win column, yes, but the Huskies still struggled against premier competition. Stanford snuck past, avenging a previous defeat, and Oregon pulled away in the fourth quarter; it was unsurprising to see Arizona State sledgehammer the Huskies, given the nastiness of the back-to-back-to-back grind. UW also stumbled against UCLA before closing with a flourish, bombarding Oregon State, upending rival Washington State and out-shoving Brigham Young in the postseason. This was the next step for the program; too bad Sarkisian won't be around to taste the fruits of his labor but Petersen will.
High point: Beating Washington State to claim the Apple Cup. Secondary was the fact it snapped UW's run of seven-win seasons.
Low point: The three-week run of Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State. Strong indeed is the team that can survive such a stretch. The Huskies weren't quite there.
Tidbit: Washington's four losses last fall came to opponents with a combined record of 42-12. Time for the backhanded compliment portion of this exercise: These 42 combined wins were the second-most of any four-loss team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, if that makes sense, trailing Texas A&M which lost to 12-win Auburn, 12-win Missouri, 11-win Alabama and 10-win LSU. Put another way, UW had the second-most impressive four-loss slate of any team in the country a backhanded compliment, of course.
Tidbit (Rockne edition): You may or may not be familiar with Knute Rockne, the former Notre Dame coach who inspired various books, movies and tales of varying degrees of truth if you're reading this, you probably know about Knute Rockne. Rockne won 88.1% of his games during 13 years with the Fighting Irish, long holding the major-level record for career winning percentage. Not anymore: Petersen has won 88.5% of his games. Let's just rephrase: In terms of simple winning percentage, Petersen is the most successful coach in college football history.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Bulgarian emperors (First Empire)
5. Petar I
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: At some point soon, sophomore Cyler Miles will be UW's starting quarterback just not until at least Eastern Washington, after he serves a one-game suspension for an offseason violation of team rules. In the interim, look for Miles to secure his status as the Huskies' starter while Petersen looks for a short-term replacement: Jeff Lundquist is the guy, more than likely, based on his grasp of the offense and solid performance during the spring game. But the job is Miles' to lose, his to have and hold, hinging on the sophomore's ability to first work his way fully out of the doghouse and then showcase the skills that flashed at times during his rookie season. Miles was impressive in small doses last fall, particularly in a win against Oregon State, and can clearly have a similar impact as the full-time starter if teamed with an effective running game. Say one thing about the staff: Petersen has long had a brilliant touch with quarterbacks, and with young quarterbacks in particular. Even if Miles doesn't stand as a three-year starter perhaps K.J. Carta-Samuels is the long-term guy he'll be placed into can't-fail situations. I think he'll do well.
Say one thing: Petersen won't be able to replace Austin Seferian-Jenkins, though perhaps a catch-block combination of Joshua Perkins and Michael Hartvigson could keep the tight ends involved through the air and on the ground. Say another thing: I really like the overall makeup of the receiver corps. Williams is the go-to guy, though Mickens has done enough thus far in his career to be viewed as his co-leader in the passing game. Put simply and I feel confident about this John Ross is going to be an absolute star. Hall has the elusiveness to make a difference, perhaps as a stretch-the-field threat. If healthy, Campbell has the experience and drive to become the Huskies' third option. Taylor, a converted running back fresh off a redshirt season, could be extremely dangerous in space. This group could be far, far better than advertised.
Defense: The defense will make a more full-bore move into a 3-4 base set after spending a heavy portion of time with the formation under the previous staff, though the defense will retain a degree of multiplicity. It's not as painful as you might imagine: UW is familiar with the alignment, generally speaking, and has the weapons all along the front to thrive against the run and the pass and this line, with its athleticism and flexibility, will have a profound impact on the entire front seven. Consider that senior Hau'oli Kikaha (70 tackles, 13.5 sacks), an absolute menace on two feet, and junior Cory Littleton (62 tackles, 10.0 for loss) can put a hand on the ground and slide back into an edge-rushing role, doubling their ability to cause havoc in the backfield. Kikaha in particular deserves another few words: After finally getting healthy, he showed the sort of disruptiveness nearly unmatched in college football.
There are two stars along the front: Kikaha and senior nose tackle Danny Shelton (59 tackles), the latter a perfect linchpin in the middle of the 3-4 look. UW is also high on Shelton's projected reserve, redshirt freshman Elijah Qualls, though he'll need to be slowly moved into the mix, and has high hopes for true freshman Greg Gaines. There's still a hole to be filled at the more traditional end role: Washington could lean on a number of options at the spot, cobbling together a complete package from the group of Evan Hudson, Andrew Hudson, Joe Mathis, Marcus Farria and true freshman Will Dissly or even use Kikaha, which might not be a bad option at times. Overall, the Huskies have explosiveness, all-conference locks, All-American potential and great depth if some of the younger variety all along the front.
It's only fair to include Littleton and Kikaha among the linebackers, seeing that both will occupy that hybrid, flex-between role on the outside. They'll join a fairly entrenched threesome of returning contributors: John Timu (77 tackles) should fit the 3-4 well in the middle, Travis Feeney (55 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is athletic enough to fit inside or out sliding to the outside when the Huskies move back into a 4-3 and Shaq Thompson (78 tackles) ... well, Shaq Thompson was built in a lab. Because Littleton could be asked to run in space but Kikaha would be negated if taken too far away from the line, Feeney and Thompson should largely play on the outside. It's a talented group with one issue: With the second tier made up almost entirely of fresh-faced newcomers, no one can afford to miss any extended time due to injury. Thompson gives UW's front seven three players with some sort of All-American potential.
There's some concerns circling around this secondary, where three starters and a key reserve must be replaced, but UW can feel secure in one position: Marcus Peters (55 tackles, 4 interceptions) enters the fall as one of the ballyhooed defensive backs in the Pac-12, perhaps set to broaden his reach outside the conference with a matched-expectations junior season. But there are three starting spots to fill and little in the way of proven production, so UW could call on at least three members of February's signing class. Two, Naijiel Hale and Budda Baker, should factor into the mix opposite of Peters, where former Alabama transfer Travell Dixon and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly topped the rotation heading into fall camp. In terms of a starting duo, things are more secure at safety: Brandon Beaver and Trevor Walker should start at free and strong safety, respectively, though Beaver could be pushed by fellow sophomore Kevin King. The secondary is the weak link in the chain for this defense.
Special teams: There's going to be competition at kicker, punter and kickoff specialist. The first and third duties should go to sophomore Cameron Van Winkle, a strong recruit who sat last season behind Travis Coons. It'll be a bit more heated at punter, where Washington could go with a more seasoned option in Corey Durkee, who did some punting in 2012, or lean toward incoming freshman Tristan Vizcaino. Though Ross is loaded with potential at receiver, he's already translated his physical gifts into solid production on kickoff returns.
Running back: Matching Bishop Sankey's production will take a stable of three or four backs, one would think, and yeah, Thompson's going to get his touches. That springtime experiment has trickled into fall camp, making it more and more likely that the junior gives UW a matching piece to UCLA's both-ways sophomore Myles Jack. But Thompson is a wildcard; the running game needs two or three reliable solutions before taking him too far away from the defensive side of the ball. Injuries could force Thompson into a larger role: Jessie Callier (213 yards) is an inspiration, to be sure, but his battles with knee injuries makes his status forever questionable, and senior Deontae Cooper (270 yards) has had his own knee issues since winning the starting job in early 2012. Eventually, don't be surprised if Cooper and Callier cede way to sophomore Dewayne Washington (332 yards), the closest thing to total package on the roster; in addition, keep tabs on redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman, who could rocket up the depth chart if given the opportunity. This is the story: UW has four options five if we count Thompson, six if we count true freshman Jomon Dotson so finding the committee to replace Sankey's impact shouldn't be difficult. It just won't be one back doing the heavy lifting.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Stanford: The worst part about the North Division: Stanford and Oregon. Washington's had greater success against the former than the latter, though that's relative; Washington has many wins against the New England Patriots as against the Ducks since 2004. The Huskies also draw UCLA and Arizona from the South, with the Wildcats on the road, so it's your fairly typical Pac-12 slate. That bad news is tempered somewhat by the fact UW draws California and Colorado as two of its conference road games.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: One of the great coaches in college football has walked into an optimal situation. This isn't just in the long run, though it's easy to get caught up dreaming about what Petersen can achieve during the course of a half-decade in Seattle; that's in play, of course, but he also grabs a prime seat in the here and now, with Washington set to match or exceed last year's breakthrough under the previous staff. At a very basic level, that should be the program's goal: UW should set a baseline at eight wins during the regular season and eyeball nine with the postseason, knowing that an impressive mix of young and experienced talent, if led correctly, could make some major noise in the Pac-12 perhaps upsetting the power structure in place since Stanford and Oregon joined the nation's elite.
That's not happening in 2014, though we have to consider UW's upgraded place in the power structure in the very near future. For now, the Huskies sit slightly behind the curve in the North due to some personnel issues, primarily, though even Petersen will hit a snag in the transition to a new program. The offense needs to find a lead running back and make things easy on Miles, who will hit a similar curve in his move into the full-time starting role. The defense needs help in the secondary, though a healthy pass rush could aid the Huskies' hopes for solid play along the back end. To be honest, that's where the issues end: UW will be less productive in the offensive and defensive backfields.
That's enough to keep Washington inside a national ranking and one or two steps behind the Cardinal and Ducks because it's all about the details when you get down to brass tacks, the little things, and both North leaders seem more secure across the board. This is a team that may continue to have hiccups against the elite teams on its schedule, but that shouldn't last long: Sarkisian left Petersen a gifted and hungry roster; he just needs to keep this pointed in the right direction. He'll do that and then some. This is a team with nine-win and Rose Bowl potential. At some point soon, the Huskies will parlay that potential into production. It's an exciting time in the program's history.
Dream season: Washington splits with Stanford and Oregon but takes the North Division with some help from tiebreakers.
Nightmare season: The Huskies fall back to six wins in Petersen's debut.