Chris Petersen sent shockwaves through the college football world when he announced in December he was resigning as Washington's coach at the end of the 2019 season. The Huskies didn't have to go far to find his replacement as defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake takes over in a move proven especially prudent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of implementing a new culture and dealing with the roster turnover that coaching changes often create, Washington is remaining mostly stable as it elevates Lake from within and seeks to compete in a wide open Pac-12.
The Huskies figure to be among the best in the league defensively as most starters return from a young unit that found a groove late in the season under Lake's direction. The offense, however, is full of questions as the Huskies replace their quarterback, leading rusher, top two receivers and three offensive linemen under new offensive coordinator John Donovan.
Final ranking: unranked | Achievements: Won Las Vegas Bowl 38-7 vs. Boise State
Four of Washington's five losses in an 8-5 campaign came by a touchdown or less as a season that began with high expectations went off course with a stretch of three losses in four games. But a defense that was replacing nine starters eventually hit its stride and was especially potent in a blowout bowl win over No. 18 Boise State.
Coach Chris Petersen: Petersen led the Huskies to a 55-26 record in six seasons after coming over from Boise State. The Huskies won 10 or more games in three straight seasons for the first time in program history under his direction between 2016 and 2018.
QB Jacob Eason: After throwing for 3,132 yards and 23 touchdowns in his only season playing for his home state Huskies, the former Georgia quarterback opted to forgo his final season of collegiate eligibility. He was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
C Nick Harris: The anchor of the Huskies' offensive line went to the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the NFL Draft after earning First-Team All-Pac-12 honors in consecutive seasons.
RB Salvon Ahmed: The shifty back ran for 1,020 yards and 11 touchdowns on 188 carries before declaring for the draft after his junior season. He ended up signing with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.
CB Elijah Molden: After a breakout junior season in which he led the Huskies with 79 tackles and four interceptions, Molden returns to anchor Washington's secondary and bolster his draft stock. He's got a pedigree for greatness as his father Alex Molden was a star defensive back at Oregon and an eight-year NFL veteran.
DE/LB Joe Tryon: Tryon is already listed as the No. 4 edge rusher on the most-recent 2021 NFL Draft watchlist after leading the team with eight sacks as a redshirt sophomore. He returns to headline what should be an excellent defensive front.
TE Cade Otton: With leading wide receiver Aaron Fuller and top tight end Hunter Bryant gone, Otton could be a primary target for whoever wins the starting quarterback job. After catching 13 passes as a freshman and 32 as a sophomore, he appears ready for a breakout season as he tops the depth chart for the first time in his college career.
RB Richard Newton: The bruising runner finished his freshman season with 498 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. With Ahmed's departure, he figures to slide into the starting role. If he can stay healthy after dealing with a foot injury last season, he should have a breakout season.
OC John Donovan: The former Vanderbilt and Penn State offensive coordinator under James Franklin is returning to the college game after spending the last four seasons in the NFL on the Jaguars' staff. He was more successful at Vanderbilt than at Penn State, but he's had a few years to refine his style and says his system will be a mixture of what he knows from his college experience and what he learned in the NFL.
WR Jalen McMillan: With four of their top six pass catchers gone from last year's team, the Huskies have room for an immediate contributor at receiver. McMillan was the No. 67 overall prospect in the Class of 2020 and the No. 12 receiver, according to 247Sports. The 6-foot-2, California native chose the Huskies over Notre Dame and Oklahoma and might have the talent to be a cog in Washington's offense early on.
Week 1 vs. Michigan -- Sept. 5: It will be quite an introduction to head coaching for Lake as the Huskies host one of the sport's most-storied programs in the opener. This matchup is one of the best games of the opening weekend, and a win would likely put Washington on its way to being 3-0 for a showdown with Oregon.
Week 5 at Oregon -- Oct. 3: This one often has division title implications and that figures to be the case this season. There are parallels between Washington and Oregon as both are replacing star quarterbacks, offensive coordinators and most of their offensive starters from last season.
Week 7 at Utah -- Oct. 17: The Utes edged Washington 33-28 last season. But this is a great opportunity for the Huskies to secure some momentum in the middle of their schedule as Utah is replacing a ton of talent from last season's 11-win team.
Week 9 at Cal -- Oct. 31: With nearly all of its starters back from an 8-5 team, Cal is in position to contend. Washington lost 20-19 at home to the Bears early last season and will be on the hunt for revenge in this Halloween showdown.
Washington features one of the most-intriguing quarterback battles in the country as an inexperienced trio will jockey to replace Eason. Jacob Sirmon is the longest-tenured member of the group with a grand total of three career pass attempts. The redshirt sophomore was the No. 6 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2018 class and will be trying to fend off redshirt freshman Dylan Morris, who was the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class. Like Sirmon, Morris is a Washington native, but the two have different builds. At 6-foot-5, Sirmon brings prototypical size to the position, while Morris is just 6-feet.
There is also a wildcard in the competition as true freshman Ethan Garbers will enter the fray as the No. 4 ranked pro-style quarterback from the 2020 class. He's the younger brother of Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, who is in line for a breakout season with a program that figures to be one of the Huskies' top competitors in the Pac-12 North.
Of course, there's always Oregon standing in the way, too. But with the Ducks breaking in a revamped offense just like Washington, the division is up for grabs. It may come down to which team can get its offense cranking by October.
The Huskies' defense should be strong enough to keep the team afloat even if it takes the offense some time to find its footing. Four players who were named All-Americans by at least one publication return to the unit, including three behemoths who combined for 29 tackles for loss last season. That trio of Levi Onwuzurike, Ryan Bowman and Joe Tryon will anchor the front seven while versatile defensive back Elijah Molden returns to patrol the secondary after leading the team in tackles and interceptions.
With a solid defense, the floor is not too low for this Washington team. A disaster scenario is probably six wins. The ceiling will depend on how quickly Donovan can find a quarterback and get his system humming. But the Pac-12 North is uncertain enough that Washington could be in the hunt for a division title in November if everything comes together quickly on offense.