Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Washington.

Already covered: ArizonaArizona StateCalColoradoOregonOregon State | Stanford | UCLA | USC | Utah

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In college football in 2023, head coaches must become masters on 3 different recruiting planes: high school recruiting, transfer portal recruiting and the often-forgotten one, roster re-recruiting.

And it is in that third category that Kalen DeBoer flipped the fate of Washington’s 2023 season.

The Huskies’ star-studded roster could have looked a lot less shiny if Michael Penix Jr., Bralen Trice and Rome Odunze entered the NFL Draft, or if Jalen McMillan or Ja’Lynn Polk had transferred to be a one-man show. But they’re all back — plus a handful of other stars — and Washington is poised to do what no Pac-12 team has done since 2016: make the College Football Playoff. And who was it back in ’16? The Huskies. How fitting.

I vastly underestimated Washington last year, but I should’ve paid closer attention to what star offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland said at last year’s Pac-12 Media Day. He sounded downright ecstatic about the pace and tempo of DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb’s new offense. He was right.

With a loaded roster and a friendly schedule than their top Pac-12 competition, I like the Huskies to go 11-1 and win the conference.

Is Michael Penix Jr. a legit Heisman contender?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: Of course.

The Indiana transfer annihilated expectations last year, turning in not just the best season of his career but perhaps the most impressive season by a UDub quarterback in program history. Penix completed 362-of-554 passes for a school-record 4,641 yards and 31 touchdowns with 8 interceptions. He led the country in passing yardage per game after topping 300 yards 10 times, 400 yards twice and 500 yards once (a school-record 516 vs. Arizona).

And he’s going to be better this year. Odunze, McMillan and Polk comprise one of the best wide receiver corps in the country, and Penix knows how to feed them. Imagining him with a full offseason under DeBoer and Grubb is almost too much for the senses. Luckily the Huskies’ passing game is ready to take flight after the loss of running back Cam Davis.

Can the pass defense bust out the umbrellas?

A simple rule is that quick-strike, prolific passing offenses put an added burden on a team’s own pass defense, and that played out with the Huskies (and the Trojans) last year. Washington ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in pass defense efficiency, 11th in passing touchdowns allowed and 9th in interceptions in 2023. All told, the Huskies ranked 100th in the country against the pass last year.

The addition of Oklahoma State cornerback Jabbar Muhammad should help, but some of the Huskies’ issues might just be a byproduct of an offense that can score from 70 yards out at any time.

Does Bralen Trice know how good he is?

Trice could have been a 1st-rounder in the 2023 NFL Draft after ranking as Pro Football Focus’ national leader in quarterback pressures (67) and 3rd among Pac-12 players with 9 sacks. And he’s barely scratched the surface.

In a conference that lacks dominant left tackles, Trice will feast. He had at least a half-sack in 7 games. Alongside ample front 7 talent, anything fewer than a dozen sacks would be a disappointment.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Boise State (W)

What a great season-opening matchup between a pair of potential 10-win teams and conference champions. The Broncos are favorites to win the Mountain West, but an upset over the Huskies would put them in the Top 25. (They received votes in the preseason poll, ranking 31st.) However, I doubt that’s going to happen with Washington set to average 40 points per game. As Heisman campaign kickoffs go, this is a good one for Penix.

Week 2: vs. Tulsa (W)

Tulsa’s middling 2022 season ended on a high note with season-ending wins over South Florida and at Houston. But any momentum the Golden Hurricane built will end abruptly with back-to-back matchups against the Huskies and No. 20 Oklahoma Sooners. The first meeting between the programs won’t be very close. Penix goes for 350 and 3 score and the defense settles in after a tougher Week 1.

Week 3: at Michigan State (W)

ESPN’s Football Power Index model favors Michigan State in this one, 55%to 45%. But that measures returning production and not the eyeball test, and anyone who watched these teams play last year knows these teams aren’t close. Washington led by 25 in the 4th quarter before winning by 11, 39-28.

This time, Penix will get 3 extra yards to top the 400-yard mark for the first time in 2023. Last year he had 397 yards and 4 scores. Ho-hum.

Week 4: vs. Cal (W)

The last time they met, Washington stifled Cal freshman running back Jaydn Ott and sacked quarterback of Jack Plummer 5 times. Plummer still managed to pass for 245 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions, but Penix outdid him with 374 yards and 3 scores, connecting with 11 receivers.

This time, Penix will hit the 400-yard mark and the Huskies will tighten up their pass defense a bit.

Week 5: at Arizona (W)

Much like Cal’s Plummer, Arizona’s Jayden de Laura had a monster game last year that was for naught. Imagine completing 25-of-34 passes for 400 yards with 4 scores and zero picks … and losing. That’ll happen when the opponent sets a school record with 516 passing yards. Will Penix top half-a-thousand again? Probably not. But this will be quite the duel in the desert. Arizona does not have the defensive backfield talent to keep up with the Huskies’ Big 3, but they’ll put some points on the board, too.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Oregon (W)

This is maybe the top contender for Pac-12 conference game of the year, with the Big Ten-bound Pacific Northwest foes meeting in Husky Stadium for the last time as Pac-12 members. Last year’s instant classic saw Washington erase a late 7-point deficit to win with 10 points in the final 3:07.

The only thing that soured last year’s matchup was a late-game injury to Bo Nix that cost Oregon dearly.

This year, assuming both teams are healthy, we could see 1,000 yards total offense and 10 touchdowns.

Week 8 vs. Arizona State (W)

Washington gets to the soft part of its schedule before things get real hard, real quick. A retooled Arizona State roster should not show the Huskies too much trouble, especially with the game in Seattle. Then again, we said this before in one of the Pac-12’s strangest rivalries.

ASU won last season 45–38 to move to 12-2 in the rivalry since 2002. It truly makes no sense. Sure they were pockets of time when the Huskies were down, but when were the Sun Devils up? UDub has to be tickled purple to be getting away from the Sun Devils.

Week 9: at Stanford (W)

Yet another late-season appetizer to prepare for the three main courses, followed by an Apple Cup for dessert. The Stanford and Washington passing games could not be going in more different directions, as the Huskies boast arguably the best passing attack in the country, while the Cardinal are staring at a new starter in a new offense under Troy Taylor.

That magical 500-yard mark? Penix could hit it here.

Week 1o: at USC (L)

The Pac-12’s 2 most thrilling passing games missed each other last year, and the college football world missed out on what would’ve been a pure fireworks show. College GameDay better be heading to the Los Angeles Coliseum for a game that could register on the Richter scale.

Both Penix and USC’s Caleb Williams will treat this game like a Heiman showcase, and you can believe that Riley and DeBoer will bring their most creative A-games. If the game were in Seattle, I might pick differently. As it stands, I like USC to deal Washington its first loss.

Week 11: vs. Utah (W)

I’m about as bullish on Utah’s defense as I am on Washington’s offense, and I usually favor good defense over good offense. But the Huskies are a scoring machine and while I expect Penix to do some running around, he’s terrific on the move.

With Utah’s shutdown corner Clark Phillips III off to the NFL, I like Penix to test the Utah D. Predicting 300 yards and a few scores is conservative.

Week 12: at Oregon State (W)

This clash in styles will be fascinating. The Beavers have the best running game in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country; Washington lights it up through the air like few others do or have done.

As much as I love what Jonathan Smith and the Oregon State coaches have done to build back the Beavers program, Washington’s A+ talent is just a little better than Oregon State’s A talent.

Week 13: vs. Washington State (W)

This better not be the last Apple Cup we see. If it is, what better story would there be than the Cougars playing spoiler to a potential Pac-12 College Football Playoff berth with an upset over their in-state rivals?

That feels like a bit of poetic justice after Washington, it turns out, was one of the linchpins of the Pac-12’s destruction.

Still, that’s hard to see actually coming to fruition. The Huskies are too good and playing for too much.

2023 Projection: 11-1 (8-1)


So there you have it. Your 2023 Pac-12 champions. Or, at least, regular-season champions.

Luckily, our Crystal Ball series does not include the conference title game, because I am not ready to go out onto that limb. By virtue of a conference schedule that sends Oregon and Utah to Seattle, I like the Huskies to reign for the first time in years. The offense is too good, the defense is too talent, and DeBoer is too creative.