If you had to pick one college football team to win a national championship next season, you’d probably pick one of the teams in Phil Steele’s top five: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State or LSU. But if you like to live dangerously, Steele has a think-outside-the-box option that you may find intriguing.
“Well, my No. 1 surprise team this year – and by a ‘surprise team,’ I mean a non-top-10 team that I think can actually win a national title – would be the Washington Huskies,” the college football insider said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “Nobody’s going to talk about them because last year at one point this team was 4-6. They needed to win their last two game just to get to a bowl and then win the bowl game just to have a winning season.”
The Huskies did exactly that, beating Oregon State and then-No. 20 Washington State by a combined 97-17 in their final two games of the regular season before beating Southern Miss, 44-31, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“Last year’s Washington team had to replace a lot of talent to the NFL,” Steele said, explaining the Huskies’ early struggles. “They only had four returning starters on defense. And yet, they only allowed 18.8 points per game in Pac-12 play.”
That was good enough for the best defense in the league.
“Well, this year they have seven starters back on D, led by (linebacker) Azeem Victor, (defensive back) Budda Baker (and defensive back) Sidney Jones,” Steele said. “I think they have the Pac-12’s best defense.”
Offensively, Washington is led by a pair of true sophomores: quarterback Jake Browning, who last year completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and running back Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. No Husky caught more than three touchdown passes last season, but that figures to change in 2016 with the return of redshirt junior John Ross, who missed all of last season due to injury.
“He’s back at wide receiver, punt returner and kick returner,” Steele said. “He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. And they have a veteran offensive line.”
The schedule also lays out well for the Huskies.
“They get Stanford at home, USC at home, Arizona State at home,” Steele said. “A lot of my power ratings call for Washington to win 11 games this year, and if they do that, they’ve got a great shot at winning the Pac-12 and they’d be a dark horse title contender.”
That would be quite the Cinderella story, as Washington has won double-digit games just once since 1992. The Huskies went 11-1 in 2000 and beat Purdue in the Rose Bowl. They have finished 7-6 in four of the last six seasons and went 0-12 in 2008.