Washington’s returning stars think the Huskies can legitimately challenge for a national title in 2023.

Year 1 under coach Kalen DeBoer brought about 11 wins in 13 tries, a bowl game victory, the nation’s best passing offense, and a slew of All-Pac-12 selections. And the squad DeBoer cultivated was so strong that just about everyone who could elected to return for Year 2. Washington will be tested in 2023, but competing for a Pac-12 title is completely within reach.

And if the Huskies were to win the crown, a College Football Playoff spot might be on the table.

ESPN recently went through its way-too-early Top 25 — in which the Huskies rank No. 11 — and spelled out how each team in the ranking can make it to the CFP. ESPN’s Paolo Uggetti wrote that Washington’s questions lay on the defensive side of the ball:

Much like with USC, the answer is defense. The Huskies ranked 100th in passing defense last season, and though they were able to overcome inconsistent play on that side of the ball with elite offense in 11 of their 13 games led by Michael Penix Jr., when the offense slowed down even just a little bit, the two losses (back-to-back, no less) happened. In both losses to UCLA and Arizona State (woof), the Huskies gave up 40 and 45 points while losing by only a score. Kalen DeBoer’s debut season in Seattle was as impressive as anything that happened in college football last year, but a big leap needs to be made on defense for Washington to truly become one of the top teams in the conference and the nation.

The Huskies gave up 26 points a game in 2022. That ranked 58th nationally. The run defense was much improved from 2021, but the pass defense took a major step back as the secondary dealt with injuries and depth concerns all season.

With crossover games against Arizona, USC, and Utah in 2023, the Huskies are going to face just about every one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks. A big step on defense could be huge.