Somehow, someway, we’re just nine short days away from the start of the college football season. And after spending the past few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: The true national championship contenders. Therefore, go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Clemso --- oh wait, Dabo Swinney’s club is actually really good. Still, over the next two weeks, FOXSports.com will break down all the true contenders for the National Championship and give you a couple reasons why, yes, they can win it all. After starting with Ohio State on Monday, we now head out West for what (this writer believes) is the team with the best chance to win it out of the Pac-12: the Washington Huskies. After winning their last three games in 2015 by an average of more than 30 points and returning virtually every key piece off last year’s club, business is booming in Seattle for Chris Petersen. Here are five reasons the Huskies are true national championship contenders in 2016.
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Their offense is way better than anyone realizes
If I were to ask you who had the best offense in the Pac-12, some obvious answers would immediately come to mind: Oregon, Washington State, maybe even UCLA with Josh Rosen. But while those teams get all the hype, no one returns more overall talent than the Huskies -- and no one quite has the balance, either. For Washington, it starts with quarterback Jake Browning, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards last year. Running back Myles Gaskin rushed for 1,302 yards -- the second-most among all freshmen in college football in 2015. But more important than just the stats from last season is how the Huskies actually played down the stretch. No one was hotter to close 2015 than the Huskies, who scored 52, 45 and 44 points in their final three contests. With a relatively easy schedule to start the season, look for Browning, Gaskin and the Huskies to pick up right where they left off. Speaking of that schedule ...
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The schedule is manageable, at least by Pac-12 standards
Again, by Pac-12 standards it’s easy. That’s not to say things won’t be tough, but when compared with other schools in the conference (yes, I’m looking at you, USC) the Huskies' slate is darn manageable. For starters, their out-of-conference slate is softer than the little bald spot on the back of Nick Saban’s head, with Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State all coming to Husky Stadium to open the year. Unlike so many other schools in the conference (Oregon, UCLA, those Trojans), Washington has no marquee game out of conference. In terms of the in-conference schedule, well again, it’s manageable, at least by Pac-12 standards. The Huskies don’t play UCLA out of the South at all, and their toughest opponents from there -- Stanford and USC -- have to come to Husky Stadium, one of the loudest venues in the Pac-12. Yes, there is a road game at Oregon, but this is the weakest Ducks squad on paper since before Chip Kelly’s arrival in 2009. If the Huskies are ever going to break their 12-game streak against their hated rivals, this feels like the season. Again, the schedule is never easy. But no one has a schedule more favorable to make a run than the Huskies do.
There’s no other way to put it: Washington has the most underrated defense in college football
Are you starting to sense a trend here? The Huskies just don’t get any respect -- not only on offense but also on defense, where they have the best unit that no one in college football talks about. Washington brings back eight starters from a group which was already the best in the Pac-12. And that’s not just figurative speech. The Huskies led the conference in both total defense and scoring defense, allowing just 351 yards per game and holding opponents to 18.8 points per contest. That last number is incredible anywhere, but especially spectacular in the Pac-12, which is home to some of college football’s most explosive offenses. And the Huskies shouldn’t take a step back this year, either, as they return some of the best across-the-board personnel in the entire Pac-12. That includes do-everything safety Budda Baker and corner Sidney Jones, who finished tied for third in the Pac-12 with four interceptions last year.
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You don’t doubt Chris Petersen
I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little skeptical that Chris Petersen could get things rolling at Washington after his uber-successful run at Boise State. And while the jury is still out on his time in Seattle, here’s one thing you can’t deny: His presence -- and his way of doing things -- is already being felt. Besides the back-to-back bowl seasons, Petersen has turned this into a “Chris Petersen type” program. High-profile stars who have caused headaches have been kicked to the curb (like Marcus Peters in 2014) and replaced with guys that Petersen dubs “OKG’s,” also known as “Our Kind of Guys.” Players like Gaskin, Browning and Baker might not have been the most high-profile recruits, but they’re quiet and hungry, and stay out of trouble off the field. It has resulted in gradual improvement over the last two years, and should lead to a breakout in 2016. Remember, although the Huskies “only” won seven games last year, there were three losses by a touchdown or less, meaning that win total could have been much higher. At this point, Petersen has a track record of continuously rolling out one successful, fundamentally sound football team after another. While he'll never match the 92-12 run he had at Boise, there's a reason Petersen wins much more often than he loses. Doubt him at your own risk.
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The Pac-12 is down this year
That's probably not the signature phrase Larry Scott will be shouting from the conference’s offices all fall. But,the simple truth is that this is probably the weakest the Pac-12 has been since the conference went to 12 teams back in 2010. For starters, there is no dominant team like Oregon or Stanford in years past, and it doesn’t appear that there is the depth of last year, when 10 teams made bowl games. Looking at the rest of the contenders outside of U-Dub, Stanford is breaking in a first-year starter at quarterback and has big questions on the offensive line. And while UCLA still has Josh Rosen, the Bruins lost their three leading receivers and Paul Perkins, who rushed for nearly 3,000 yards the past two years. As mentioned, Oregon appears to be its weakest in years, Utah lost virtually its entire offense and USC has the schedule from hell. Sometimes, it’s not just about you but the opposition, and nobody appears to be in better position to take the Pac-12 than Washington. Win the Pac-12, and who knows from there. It won’t be an easy road to the title, but the Huskies can reach this year’s college football playoff, and maybe even win it.