Chris Petersen entered this season with an unenviable task. He had to show improvement after an underwhelming first season with Washington, and he'd have do it with a true freshman QB in the season opener for the first time in school history. The Huskies finished with a record of 7-6 (T-4th in the Pac-12 North), which may not scream success, but hopes are high for continued improvement next season.
QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin will return after breakout freshman seasons. The defense returns most of its major contributors. Petersen's staff, unlike many in the conference, will stay mostly stable. All of that adds up to quite a few early Top 25 rankings for the Huskies in 2016.
Things got off to an ominous start as the Chris Petersen reunion tour rolled into Boise. Petersen's former team took a 16-0 halftime lead and held on to secure the win despite a late Washington surge. The Husky offense couldn't find the end zone in Jake Browning's first game, with their only touchdown coming on special teams.
The rest of the non-conference schedule went a bit more smoothly, as the Huskies comfortably beat Sacramento State and Utah State at home. Browning threw five TDs in those two games, and Myles Gaskin added his first three rushing scores against Sac State.
The Golden Bears may have gotten lucky playing the Huskies when they did. Browning still looked young amidst one of his worst statistical games of the season (17/28 for 152 yards and 2 INTs), Myles Gaskin took a backseat to a less-effective Dwayne Washington, and Cal hung 30 points on what would become the conference's best defense. It took five forced turnovers and some late-game Jared Goff magic, but the Bears escaped Seattle with a 30-24 win.
Next week went quite a bit better, as the Huskies knocked out #17 USC and former coach Steve Sarkisian in Los Angeles. Browning again struggled to create points, but the defense completely shut down Cody Kessler on the way to a 17-12 win and a 3-2 record. Unfortunately, the next matchup was against an Oregon team that was just hitting its stride. The Washington defense held Vernon Adams and his crew to just 26 points, but couldn't match that total. Nor could they keep up with #10 Stanford the following week in a 31-14 loss.
The Huskies broke the losing streak with a 49-3 whupping of Arizona on Halloween (led by Jake Browning's 5 total TDs), but limped into November with painful losses to #17 Utah and Arizona State. How painful? The Huskies led ASU 17-0 in the first half, only to lose 27-17.
Again they took out their frustrations on a weaker team, this time Oregon State, before an Apple Cup matchup with Washington State. The Cougars were ranked 20th and riding a three-game win streak, but the Huskies would extend their series streak to three with a 45-10 victory over the Cougs. That win, their sixth, earned them a berth in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. There, Gaskin's 4-TD, 181-yard performance sealed a 44-31 win and a winning record.
The positive momentum with which the Huskies ended their season could extend into the fall. The offense will lose its top two receiving targets, but will retain its pair of young stars in the backfield. The defense, meanwhile, will contend with the losses of DT Taniela Tupou, LBs Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, and S Brian Clay. The rest of the unit, which led the Pac 12 in scoring defense and yards per play, will return. Depending on the defense's progress, Washington could reasonably expect to be even better on both sides of the ball.
Very early projections have the Huskies as a possible dark horse contender to win the Pac 12 in 2016. They should get off to a quick start, with an easy out of conference schedule consisting of home games against Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State. Their schedule never gets much harder either, as their most difficult streak appears to be games against Stanford and at Oregon before a mid-October bye. The Huskies miss UCLA and Colorado next season.
Washington makes the trip to Berkeley on November 5th. Cal will be coming off a pair of weird scheduling weeks, facing Oregon on a Friday and USC on a Thursday before getting a long week to prepare for the Huskies. That game will look a lot different than this year's iteration, for obvious reasons. The QB situation will be an interesting flip-flop, as Cal will be a few months into the career of Jared Goff's successor while Jake Browning comes in as the dangerous veteran. Next year's Bears may well resemble this year's Huskies, depending on an experienced defense to assist a young quarterback.