Members of the Washington defense, including defensive ends Zion Tupuola-Fetui (left) and Bralen Trice (8), line up for drills during a practice on Aug. 2 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Members of the Washington defense, including defensive ends Zion Tupuola-Fetui (left) and Bralen Trice (8), line up for drills during a practice on Aug. 2 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Can UW have a glory-filled Pac-12 swan song?

In Year 2 of the Kalen DeBoer era and with a Heisman candidate at QB, there seems to be a plausible path to a storybook season.

By Larry Stone / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Both history and logic say the second year of a college-football coaching regime is often the absolute sweet spot. The coach has had one year to install his system and culture, and stock the roster as much as possible with “his guys.”

It’s certainly not a foolproof scenario — case in point, the Jimmy Lake regime, which didn’t reach a third season after Year 2 went haywire — but that formula is often the catalyst for a program soaring to new heights. The number of coaches who won national titles during their second year in a program is eye-opening: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, 2000; Jim Tressel, Ohio State, 2002; Urban Meyer, Florida, 2006; and Gene Chizik, Auburn, 2010, for starters, along with numerous other examples of huge leaps forward in the second year.

Enter Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, who already did some serious soaring in his rookie season. Inheriting a 4-8 team from Lake, DeBoer led the Huskies to an 11-2 season and a victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl in 2022.

Now the Huskies have even higher aspirations … and all of a sudden there is an unexpected twist. As of Friday, DeBoer’s second season on Montlake also will be Washington’s final year in the Pac-12. Could there be a better send-off for the Huskies — and a better way to introduce themselves to their new digs in the Big Ten — than by bagging their first Pac-12 title since 2018 and inserting themselves even deeper into the national conversation?

It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable aspiration for a team that returns a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback as well as a slew of other offensive weapons, including one of the nation’s best receiving corps. The USA Today Sports AFCA football coaches poll has Washington at No. 11, and the Huskies no doubt will be in a similar spot when the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll is released Monday.

How far the Huskies ultimately get will depend on numerous factors, such as keeping quarterback Michael Penix Jr. healthy, successfully revamping their offensive line and augmenting a defense that ranked 129th (out of 130 teams nationally) in passes defended per game (2.54), 111th in opponent pass efficiency rating (145.8), 114th in opponent pass touchdowns (26) and 117th in third-down defense (44.51% completions).

The fact that last year’s stellar season didn’t result in a Pac-12 championship — back-to-back losses to UCLA and Arizona State by a combined 15 points took care of that — provides the Huskies all the motivation they need.

“There’s a lot of momentum that last season gave us, but we also didn’t win,” DeBoer said. “We didn’t make it to a conference championship. … We spoke about that. We have a goal, and that’s to win championships and also to do it with class and integrity.”

Those championships may well become exponentially difficult in 2024 and beyond when not only does USC — ranked No. 6 in the coaches poll — remain a conference foe in the Big Ten, but the likes of Michigan (No. 2), Ohio State (No. 4) and Penn State (No. 7) are added to the mix.

The Huskies would no doubt love to give the Big Ten a reason to be wary of the newcomers next year. Asked whether his ultimate goal for the Huskies is a national title, DeBoer replied:

“You can’t win a national title until you win a conference championship. … You don’t want to leave that to chance. I mean, it’s gonna take a conference championship in my mind to make the next goal, and I’d be lying if that hasn’t always been, since Day 1 as a head coach 15, 20 years ago, that going to national championships isn’t always in the back of my mind.”

It’s a Jedi mind trick, however, that the best way to achieve that goal is by not obsessing over it, and especially not to skip steps. To DeBoer, it’s all about focusing on the smaller picture of winning the next game, and even before that on maximizing each practice — trite stuff, perhaps, but in his mind hugely important, if not paramount.

“It always goes back to not getting ahead of yourself and talking about that and thinking about that (titles) too much,” he said. “When you ask me that question, I’m going to answer that way. But our guys right now, we’re going back to the process, the process, the process and focusing on now.”

And the now for Washington includes a large portion of players who understand on an almost instinctual level what DeBoer and his staff want — both in X’s and O’s and in preparation. That continuity is the secret sauce that so often can lead to greater things in Year 2.

“They have lofty goals,” DeBoer said of his team. “We got to this situation, this spot right now, where we have a confidence to us, a swagger to us, because we took advantage of every moment, every day, every practice meeting (last year).”

Of course, those goals can be sidetracked by the football equivalent of the “sophomore jinx,” in which all the elements that coalesced in the first year become problematic in Year 2, for whatever reason. One need look no further than Washington’s Week 3 opponent, Michigan State, which went 11-2 in coach Mel Tucker’s first full season with Sparty in 2021 (after a 2-5 record in the COVID year), then plummeted to 5-7 last year.

A similar slide would be a hugely disappointing turn of events for the Huskies, not to mention the worst possible way to transition into the treacherous waters of the Big Ten. But in Year 2 of the Kalen DeBoer era, there seems to be a plausible path to a glory-filled Pac-12 swan song.

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