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Embrace the hype: Washington clear favorite in Pac-12

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By TIM BOOTH

AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE (AP) When Myles Gaskin first arrived at Washington, the outside expectations for the Huskies were very different. They weren't seen as an overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12.

Three years later, Gaskin is about to enter his final season in the purple and gold knowing the Huskies have reached a level where the perception of the program has greatly changed. High expectations are now a given. And the goal? That would be to win a national title.

"I know this program has been through a lot and taken a lot of steps forward but that's always been our goal, just to win every game. Win every game and it's going to put you in the mix," Gaskin said.

For the first time in more than 20 years, Washington will go into a season where being in the national championship conversation doesn't sound outlandish, assuming the Huskies are able to get past Auburn in the Sept. 1 season opener. They are the clear favorites to win the Pac-12 North and to win the Pac-12 title. Accomplish both and there's a good chance the Huskies could find themselves in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years.

Coach Chris Petersen, of course, hates the expectations facing the Huskies before the season begins.

"We expect to be good and win games, and that's never changed," Petersen said. "So because other people think that we might win some games, that doesn't really change our mindset."

The lofty hopes are centered on Washington's experience. The Huskies return a fourth-year quarterback in Jake Browning who will be handing off to a fourth-year running back in Gaskin - who is poised to rewrite Washington's record books. They're both playing behind an offensive line returning four starters.

Then there's a defense that could be one of the best in the country, led by its stellar secondary.

Here are other things to watch in 2018:

MONTLAKE JAKE: As great as Browning was in his sophomore season in leading Washington to the national semifinals, he took steps back as a junior. He was tentative in making throws, causing timing to be off and forcing Browning to scramble more than Washington wanted. He was more focused at times on not making a mistake than making a throw. Browning still threw for 2,719 yards and 19 TDs, but it was a major drop from 2016 when he passed for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns.

The evolution of the passing game will be a major story line for the Huskies this year. They lost star receiver Dante Pettis and won't have injured tight end Hunter Bryant for most of the season. Petersen said he's just seeking consistency from Browning.

"That's what we're looking for in Jake, to play the most difficult position in all of sports at a really high, elite level play after play after play," Petersen said.

SIZZLING SECONDARY: Washington's secondary, where all four starters return and there's a wealth of depth, will be the strength of the defense. The group is led by safeties Jojo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp, but the talent is just as good on the outside with cornerbacks Byron Murphy, Myles Bryant and Jordan Miller. The front seven may have questions - like who will replace stud defensive tackle Vita Vea - but Washington's secondary will be difficult to throw against.

TWO-HEADED ATTACK: Gaskin will likely leave Washington as the school's all-time leading rusher.

He has teamed with Lavon Coleman each of the past two years to give the Huskies' backfield a 1-2 punch.

This year will be a little different. Gaskin will still be the primary ball carrier, but look for speedy sophomore Salvon Ahmed to have an increased role. Ahmed is built like Gaskin, but plays at a quicker pace while Gaskin is a far more patient runner waiting for holes to develop.

No matter how the carries are split, both will play a major role in the success of Washington's offense.

SCHEDULING MATTERS: After two seasons of having pundits lament Washington's nonconference schedule, the Huskies have a major upgrade starting with the opener against Auburn in Atlanta on Sept. 1. Washington will also host BYU and face FCS North Dakota in the nonconference portion of the schedule. A win over an improved BYU would certainly help Washington's national perception.

The conference schedule includes a difficult two-week stretch in October with consecutive road games at UCLA and rival Oregon.

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Updated August 16, 2018

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