AUBURN, Ala. — With spring practice finished and “talking season” approaching full swing, plenty of Auburn football fans are focused on the Tigers’ Week 1 matchup against Washington.
Auburn will return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium after back-to-back losses to end the 2017 season and face a Washington team that could, like the Tigers, be a top-10 team in 2018. In their own different styles, Auburn and Washington have been elite programs in recent seasons with a combination of efficient offense and ruthless defense.
While Auburn finished its early camp, Washington is set to complete its practices Saturday with a spring game.
To get an early look at the Huskies and what’s happening in their spring practices, SEC Country enlisted the help of Washington beat reporter Ryan S. Clark of the Tacoma News Tribune. (Be sure to follow him on Twitter through that link for Huskies coverage.)
Here’s a breakdown of Chris Petersen’s squad and how it matches up with Auburn in what should be a great opener in Atlanta.
What happened in 2017
Washington followed up a trip to the College Football Playoff with a 10-3 season. The Huskies’ three losses — all away from Seattle — came by a combined 21 points. Washington, like Auburn, finished its 2017 season with a loss in a New Year’s Six game, falling to Penn State.
This was one of the most balanced teams in college football last season. Its defense ranked No. 3 nationally at 4.42 yards per play, while its offense was No. 20 at 6.42 yards per play. The Huskies were No. 5 in scoring defense and No. 17 in scoring offense. Oh, and that highly successful team is returning 16 starters.
Who you should know
QB Jake Browning: After passing for 43 touchdowns as a sophomore and undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, Browning only threw for 19 scores as a junior in 2017. According to Clark, Browning “didn’t look like himself, but he was extremely smart with the ball.” The fourth-year starting quarterback in spring ball is much closer to 100 percent, and it’s showing on the field.
RB Myles Gaskin: Like Browning, Gaskin returned for his fourth year as a starter for the Huskies. He’s put up 1,300 yards in each of his first three seasons and is as consistent as they come in college football. When Gaskin got double-digit carries in 2017, he had at least 90 yards in all but one game.
The entire secondary: Washington’s dominant defense starts at the back, where every starter returns from the Fiesta Bowl. Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh are entering their third seasons as starting safeties. Austin Joyner, Byron Murphy and Myles Bryant all have good experience at cornerback. Jordan Miller is on the mend from a 2017 injury, but he should provide even more punch for a group that recorded more interceptions (15) than touchdowns allowed (10) last fall.
Where Washington could have an edge
Attacking Auburn’s passing game: Auburn’s pass-happy offense drew a tough Week 1 matchup. In front of the veteran secondary, Washington returns almost all of its sack production from last season — outside of massive defensive tackle Vita Vea. The Tigers’ offensive line will have at least two new starters, and pass protection was a major issue early in 2017.
Winning the turnover battle: The Huskies only committed 11 turnovers, which was fewer than all but four teams in the FBS. Auburn, on the other hand, turned it over 20 times and had an issue with it inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Huskies’ plus-13 turnover differential was inside the top 10. Auburn should have more talent, but Washington is built to take advantage of any mistakes.
Where Auburn could have an edge
Running the ball: It seems counterintuitive, with Auburn replacing its running backs and Washington having such an elite and experienced defense. But the Huskies’ two missing starters, Vea and inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria, were huge in terms of slowing the ground game. As Clark says, “Bierria was a presence in the locker room. … Vea falls into that category, but he was also such a physical force.” Also, Washington’s rush defense gave up big numbers to strong rushing attacks (247 to Oregon, 197 to Stanford, 203 to Penn State) last fall.
Limiting Washington’s offense: Washington doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiver for Browning after the departure of the dynamic Dante Pettis — who, thankfully for Auburn’s shaky special teams, also returned 4 punts for touchdowns last season. Injuries have plagued Washington’s receiver group, even in the spring, and the lack of consistency outside of Gaskin “could hold the Huskies up” in 2018, per Clark. That’s good news for Auburn’s retooling secondary and a pass rush that should be able to pile on plenty of pressure.
What they’re already saying in Seattle
Clark on Washington’s spring outlook: “UW’s greatest weakness is that it’s a wait-and-see situation on certain players when it comes to health. Left tackle Trey Adams and defensive back Jordan Miller suffered season-ending injuries against Arizona State. Receivers Chico McClatcher and Quinten Pounds also had season-ending injuries. All four have been held out of spring camp as they continue to recover. UW expects they’ll be on time with their recovery but it’s something to keep tabs on.
“If Adams is healthy, he’s considered to be the top tackle on a lot of NFL draft boards. Miller gives the secondary experience and size at cornerback. McClatcher and Pounds are important because the offense must replace Dante Pettis, who led the Huskies in receiving yards.
“Speaking of Pettis, special teams is an area of concern. UW has to find a way to replace an NCAA-record holder in punts returned for touchdowns. The battle for kicker has also been a bit of a dead heat at times, too.”
Clark on under-the-radar Huskies to watch for 2018: “Redshirt sophomore left guard Luke Wattenberg could be someone. He filled in for Adams at left tackle last year but moves inside. The belief is they should form a wall to protect Browning’s blind side while giving Gaskin and [Salvon] Ahmed room to roam. Wide receiver Aaron Fuller is another player on offense, as he played well over the final five games last season.
“On defense, look for outside linebacker Benning Potoa’e and [Austin] Joyner. Potoa’e has looked good at times this camp and he’s someone many of his teammates know has a ton of ability. It’s just about finding consistency. Joyner started 10 games last year but he’s still someone who may not get a ton of attention. That might change if he has another consistent year for UW.”
Clark on the Auburn-Washington matchup: “People are excited. We spoke with former Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason on Monday and he talked about how the Mercedes-Benz Stadium has a great atmosphere.
“Facing Auburn is another sign UW is heading in the right direction. Auburn is a marquee program and games like this are going to help UW going forward. Washington has faced Alabama and Penn State in the last few postseasons and will now open 2018 against Auburn. This is what you want if you’re UW. You want to be a team that plays the ‘Who’s Who of College Football’ on a yearly basis.
“Auburn-UW has a chance to be a really good opening game. But when it comes to a score or what we think could happen, any scenario seems possible.”