Great expectations: How UW Huskies have fared with high preseason rank
Jun 8, 2023, 3:48 PM | Updated: Aug 19, 2023, 11:09 am
(Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
The Associated Press doesn’t release its preseason college football poll for another couple months, but when it does, the UW Huskies could find themselves with a single digit next to their name.
That would be a good thing. Maybe.
It would be good because it would mean Washington is a preseason top-10 team, something it has accomplished 13 times since 1950, the year the AP began issuing a poll before the season. And while there is no guarantee the Huskies will land in the top 10 this year, they do appear in the top 10 of just about every way-too-early poll you might stumble upon, including a couple of top-five appearances.
So it’s at least a distinct possibility, and perhaps even a likelihood.
It would only maybe be good, though, because the Huskies have met or exceeded a preseason top-10 ranking just once, in 1991, when they went unbeaten and shared the national championship. (There’s also the matter of 1960, which we’ll get to.)
Conversely, UW has finished with a postseason top-10 ranking 11 times since 1950, and exceeded its preseason rank in all but two of those seasons (1982 and 1960). In three of those 11 seasons, the Huskies weren’t ranked at all in the preseason. The most recent example, of course, was just last year, when UW didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason poll, but finished No. 8 after posting an 11-2 record.
(If we extend the parameters out to preseason top-15 appearances, by the way, Washington’s total is 23 since 1950, with only five of those seasons yielding postseason finishes higher than its preseason mark.)
What happened to past Washington teams that entered a season ranked in the top 10? We examine.
Preseason: No. 6
Final: No. 13
It’s hard to say the Huskies didn’t perform like a top-10 team throughout most of the 2018 season. They beat Utah twice, won the Pac-12 and played in the Rose Bowl, and their four losses — all of them on the road or at neutral sites — came by a combined 15 points.
Those near misses were frustrating, though. It started with a season-opening, 21-16 loss to Auburn in Atlanta, in which the Huskies outgained the Tigers but managed only three points on three different trips inside the red zone. They also lost at California, 12-10, despite not allowing an offensive touchdown, and missed a last-second field goal at Oregon that led to an overtime defeat. Ohio State had the Huskies outmanned in the Rose Bowl, but a second-half comeback pulled them within one score before they lost, 28-23.
Preseason: No. 8
Final: No. 16
Coming off their 2016 breakthrough — their first conference title in 16 years, plus a College Football Playoff appearance — the Huskies lost some key defensive players (and receiver John Ross III) but also returned a few stars, plus their starting quarterback, starting tailback and others from a young offensive core. Indeed, the defense wound up ranked fifth nationally in points per game allowed (16.1), and the Huskies lost only two regular-season games — a 13-7 upset defeat against a so-so Arizona State team, and an 8-point loss at Stanford.
They missed out on the Pac-12 title, but did earn an at-large bid to the Fiesta Bowl, where they lost 35-28 to Penn State. Not a bad finish at 10-3, but the Huskies didn’t beat anyone who finished the season ranked in the AP poll, and the ASU loss went down as one of the most disappointing of Chris Petersen’s tenure.
Preseason: No. 9
Rick Neuheisel’s third season, in 2001, ended with an 8-4 record and a wild Holiday Bowl defeat to Texas. But the Huskies returned quarterback Cody Pickett in 2002, and sophomore wideout Reggie Williams was coming off the greatest freshman season in school history. UW opened the 2002 season, though, with a heartbreaking, 31-29 loss at Michigan — the infamous 12-men-on-the-field game — and later lost its Pac-10 opener to California at home. After a three-game losing streak against USC, Arizona State and UCLA, the Huskies were 4-5 and needed to win two of their last three just to make a bowl game.
As it turned out, Washington won all three of those games, capping its “Pacific Northwest Championship,” as Neuheisel dubbed it, with a triple-overtime victory at then-No. 3 Washington State. But the season already was a dud, and it ended with a 7-6 record after a loss to Purdue in the Sun Bowl.
Preseason: No. 4
Final: No. 18
This was the year it was all supposed to come together for coach Jim Lambright, whose teams fell one victory shy of the Rose Bowl in each of the prior two seasons. An impressive cast of future NFL talent returned on both sides of the ball, including third-year sophomore quarterback Brock Huard. But injuries to key players piled up, and a 7-1 start gave way to a three-game losing streak to end the regular season. The Huskies used the break to get healthy before pounding a decent Michigan State team in the Aloha Bowl, leaving them to wonder what could have been.
As proof of just how talented that team was, 10 players were picked in the 1998 NFL Draft, including five in the first three rounds.
Preseason: No. 2
Final: No. 11
With two unbeaten teams atop the polls in 1991, it made sense those teams would enter the 1992 season in the same order, and that’s what happened: UW was second only to No. 1 Miami. The Huskies ascended to No. 1 after a 29-14 win over No. 12 Nebraska in Week 3, and rolled to an 8-0 start.
Then, everything changed. Star quarterback Billy Joe Hobert was suspended after the school learned he had taken a $50,000 loan from a nuclear engineer in Idaho, the Huskies lost that week’s game at Arizona, and they later lost a Rose Bowl rematch to Michigan to finish 9-3. UW eventually received a two-year bowl ban for NCAA violations, and longtime coach Don James resigned in protest, ending the most storied coaching tenure in school history (even if Gil Dobie had a better winning percentage).
Preseason: No. 4
Final: No. 2
Voters saw the Huskies win the Rose Bowl to conclude the 1990 season, one that might well have merited some No. 1 votes if not for a late-season home loss to UCLA, and slotted them as a top-five team in 1991. You know what happened next: Washington turned in one of the most dominant seasons in conference history, going undefeated and beating Michigan for their second consecutive Rose Bowl victory.
The national title wound up split between UW and unbeaten Miami: AP voters gave the No. 1 nod to the Hurricanes, while the top spot went to UW in the coaches poll. Regardless, the Huskies were underrated in the preseason, even at No. 4.
Preseason: No. 2
Final: No. 7
The Huskies went 10-2 and blasted Iowa in the Rose Bowl to cap the 1981 season, and with a fearsome cast of defensive leaders returning, voters placed UW behind only Dan Marino-led Pittsburgh to begin 1982.
Washington rose to No. 1 in Week 2 and spent six weeks there amid a 7-0 start, but dropped to No. 10 after a loss at Stanford. The Huskies scratched out consecutive wins against top-10 opponents UCLA and Arizona State, though, and ranked No. 5 going into the Apple Cup.
A win would have sent UW to its third consecutive Rose Bowl, and the Huskies were heavily favored. But in one of the more memorable games in series history, Washington State pulled off a 24-20 upset, thanks in part to a rare, late miss by All-America UW kicker Chuck Nelson. UW settled for an Aloha Bowl victory over Maryland and finished 10-2. The two teams directly ahead of the Huskies in the final AP poll? No. 5 UCLA (10-1-1) and No. 6 ASU (10-2). UW accounted for two of their three combined losses.
Preseason: No. 9
There was no bowl appearance for the Huskies in 1971 — it was Rose Bowl-or-bust for conference teams back then — but they did finish 8-3, and quarterback Sonny Sixkiller emerged as a national star, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He returned with a a team ranked No. 9 in 1972. As has become something of a trend on this list, though, an injury to the starting quarterback complicated the Huskies’ season, as Sixkiller was hurt in a 24-0 loss to Stanford — UW was 5-0 at the time — and sat out the following week’s loss at No. 1 USC.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered; the Trojans were a juggernaut, and went 12-0 as consensus national champions. Sixkiller did return to the lineup, though the Huskies lost the Apple Cup and finished 8-3. It turned out to be coach Jim Owens’ last winning season, as UW finished 2-9 in 1973 and then 5-6 in 1974, after which Owens resigned.
Preseason: No. 7
A top-10 team to start the 1964 season — its stars were guard/linebacker Rick Redman, and running backs Charlie Browning and Junior Coffey — Washington got off to a bumpy start, losing three of its first four, and eventually finished with a 6-4 record. The Huskies’ four losses came by a combined 20 points, including a 3-2 (!) home defeat to Air Force in the opener.
(Also, the AP only ranked 10 teams at the time.)
Preseason: No. 10
This is sort of a weird one, because the Huskies began the year as a top-10 team and finished unranked … yet won the conference and played in the Rose Bowl. A big reason why UW finished unranked is simply that the AP only ranked 10 teams back then. But the Huskies also started the season 0-3 before winning seven of eight in league play to earn a date in Pasadena against Illinois, to whom they lost, 17-7.
The preseason ranking was their only appearance in the AP poll that year, though UW did finish ranked No. 15 in the postseason coaches poll (prior to bowl games), higher than any conference team (ASU finished 13th but was still in the WAC).
Preseason: No. 10
This also was during the era of the AP’s 10-team rankings, otherwise the Huskies would have finished the year with a little number next to their name. UW’s only loss was to unbeaten national-champion USC, and the Huskies tied against both Purdue and Oregon to finish 7-1-2. Their defense put up four shutouts, three of them in league play, and didn’t allow more than 21 points in a game.
The postseason coaches poll ranked UW No. 14.
Preseason: No. 3
Final: No. 6
That No. 6 ranking comes with something of an asterisk. It wasn’t until 1968 that the AP began releasing its final poll after bowl season, so Washington’s famed 17-7 Rose Bowl victory over No. 1 Minnesota wasn’t factored in. If it had been, the Huskies (10-1) — after overcoming a collarbone injury to star quarterback Bob Schloredt halfway through the season — at least would have received some consideration for the No. 1 spot. Their only blemish was a one-point loss to a Navy team that finished ranked No. 4.
The Helms Foundation, which did conduct its poll after bowl season, chose UW as the national champion. It was on this basis that the school decided in 2007 to recognize the 1960 team as national champions, commemorating the occasion by wearing 1960-style throwback uniforms for their game against USC.
Preseason: No. 8
Coming off an 8-2 finish in 1950 with the nation’s leading passer, Don Heinrich, returning at quarterback — and legendary running back Hugh McElhenny returning, too — the Huskies were seen as No. 5 California’s primary competition for the conference title. But Heinrich separated his shoulder during preseason camp and missed the entire season, and UW limped to a 3-6-1 finish (1-5-1 in Pacific Coast Conference play).
On the bright side, this was the season in which McElhenny recorded his famed 100-yard punt-return touchdown against USC, his hometown school. The Trojans won the game, 20-13, in Seattle.
This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the home for Christian Caple’s full coverage of UW Huskies football (and sometimes other UW sports). Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.
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