Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 4 Washington

Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) dropped from 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2016 to 2,719 yards and 19 scores in 2017. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South CarolinaNo. 24 UtahNo. 23 West VirginiaNo. 22 Central FloridaNo. 21 TexasNo. 20 USCNo. 19 Florida StateNo. 18 OregonNo. 17 Mississippi StateNo. 16 TCUNo. 15 MichiganNo. 14 Boise StateNo. 13 Notre DameNo. 12 AuburnNo. 11 Michigan StateNo. 10 StanfordNo. 9 Miami, No. 8 Penn State, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 5 Georgia

No. 4 Washington

2017 record: 10-3 (7-2)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense

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Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, but where are the receivers?

Washington’s offense was fantastic in 2016, but there was something missing in 2017.

It’s not like the Huskies were bad last year — they averaged 36.2 points per game — but the lack of explosiveness was evident. Look no further than quarterback Jake Browning’s numbers. He dropped from 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2016 to 2,719 yards and 19 scores in 2017.

The Huskies had no wide receivers who could consistently get behind the defense. Of their regular pass-catchers, freshman tight end Hunter Bryant’s 15.0-yard average was best on the team while Dante Pettis, perhaps more renowned for his abilities in the return game, was the top receiver with 63 catches for 761 yards (12.1 yards per catch) and seven scores.

John Ross was UW’s standout in 2016, and his 81-catch, 17-touchdown season (plus that 4.22 40-yard dash) made him a first-round pick. Pettis was a second rounder last fall. So where does that leave the receiving corps?

For one, Chico McClatcher is back after missing most of 2017 with an injury. McClatcher was a home run threat for defenses to be wary of in 2016. He’ll need to be more than just that in 2018, especially with Bryant out and reliable tight end Will Dissly playing on Sundays. Others in line for playing time are juniors Aaron Fuller, Quinten Pounds and Andre Baccellia and sophomore Ty Jones. Perhaps freshman Marquis Spiker, a top 40 recruit, will be ready to contribute, too.

While Browning, in his fourth year starting at QB, gets his receiving group sorted, he’ll have a stellar offensive line and running back Myles Gaskin to rely on. Gaskin is one of the best running backs in the country. He’s rushed for at least 1,300 yards in all three of his collegiate seasons, and last year he was tied for third in the country with 21 touchdowns.

But when Gaskin was corralled, like in the costly 13-7 loss at Arizona State, Washington became beatable.

Washington running back Myles Gaskin (9) against Penn State during the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The defense is set to be tremendous yet again

Washington was No. 8 nationally in total defense last fall, and only has two starters to replace entering 2018. One of them was a major difference maker: 6-foot-5, 340-pound defensive tackle Vita Vea. The first-round draft pick clogged the middle for UW’s 3-4 attack, allowing his teammates to clean things up.

Greg Gaines, a second-team all-Pac-12 selection last fall, was a big help. He’ll be the d-line’s anchor this year, and there’s plenty of depth to go with him with sophomore Levi Onwuzurike and senior Jaylen Johnson looking like starters along with Gaines.

Keishawn Bierria is gone from the linebacker group, but leading tackler Ben Burr-Kirven (84 tackles) and disruptive outside backers Tevis Bartlett (12 TFL, 4 sacks) and Ryan Bowman (8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) are back in the mix.

But above all else, the secondary is the strength of the defense and could be one of the best in the country. That unit is led by safeties Taylor Rapp and JoJo McIntosh, while Byron Murphy is probably the best in a loaded group of cornerbacks.

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How much rides on the Auburn game?

Washington has the marquee game of Week 1 when it plays Auburn, No. 12 in Yahoo Sports’ Top 25, in Atlanta. And in a year where many consider Washington the Pac-12’s best (and only, perhaps) contender for the College Football Playoff, there’s a lot on the line.

While it may be hyperbole to think a game played on Sept. 1 is make-or-break for the conference’s CFP hopes as a whole, it could prove to be a big deal in the long run for the Huskies, and somewhat of a perception boost for the Pac-12, especially on the heels of a 1-8 bowl record.

From Washington’s perspective, it would serve as an obvious resume boost if it sits as a one-loss Pac-12 champion waiting to be sized up by the CFP committee for one of the four spots.

From there, UW’s toughest road tests will all be played by midseason: Sept. 15 at Utah, Oct. 6 at UCLA and Oct. 13 at Oregon. The back half doesn’t present as many challenges. UW misses Pac-12 South favorite USC and draws Stanford at home on Nov. 3 before rounding out the schedule with lowly Oregon State and a trip to Pullman to play Washington State.

Washington offensive lineman Trey Adams (72) takes part in a warmup drill before an NCAA college football game against Montana, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Impact player: Trey Adams, OL

Browning and Gaskin are household names in the college football world, but Adams has a bigger NFL future than either. In fact, the 6-foot-8, 316-pound left tackle may very well have been a first-round pick last fall had he not suffered a torn ACL in the ASU loss. But Adams has recovered from surgery and has been participating more and more as preseason camp progresses. The goal is to be ready for Auburn.

Game to watch: Nov. 3 vs. Stanford

We’ve highlighted the importance of the Auburn game, but Stanford’s trip to Seattle could ultimately decide the Pac-12 North, and the Pac-12’s potential place in the College Football Playoff. Even after the slip-up to Arizona State last year, Washington’s CFP hopes weren’t put to rest until a 30-22 road loss to the then-unranked Cardinal (who went onto win the Pac-12 North) on Nov. 10. The Huskies will want revenge this time around.

Best-case scenario

Washington beats Auburn, rolls through the Pac-12 and returns to the College Football Playoff. If the receiving group comes together, this could be Chris Petersen’s best team yet at Washington.

Worst-case scenario

A loss to Auburn would open the season on a sour note, but a road slip-up (hello, Utah) before UW plays its top two Pac-12 North foes — Oregon and Stanford — would be a major letdown.


Washington wins a close one over Auburn and goes 12-0 before falling in the College Football Playoff semifinals.