CU opponent preview: Pac-12 champ Washington comes to Boulder to open conference play

Andy Cross / The Denver Post
Washington’s Taylor Rapp is among on of the best defensive backs in the Pac-12.

After what appears to be a fairly easy non-conference slate, the Colorado football team will jump directly into the fire in the opening week of Pac-12 play.

On Sept. 23, the Buffaloes will host the defending Pac-12 champion Washington Huskies at Folsom Field in a rematch of last year’s conference title game.

This month, is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on the Huskies, who are once again projected to win the North division and make a run at the College Football Playoff (CFP) semifinals.

Last year, head coach Chris Peterson’s squad finally busted loose and became one of the nation’s elite teams. From 2009-15, the Huskies lost at least six games in six of seven seasons and lost four in the other season.

In Petersen’s third year in Seattle, however, it all came together in a thrilling run to the top of the conference and into the CFP. The Huskies aren’t likely to go away, and have shown the work ethic to stay on top.

“I didn’t feel it was one bit different than any spring ball we’ve had here, in terms of mentality, how we operate or anything,” Petersen said at the end of spring practice in May. “I think that these guys get that last year was last year. It’s just a new season and away we go.”

Heading into his fourth season, Petersen said he does get the feeling that the Huskies know their assignments and schemes better than in the past. If that translates into an even better team, it could be scary for the rest of the Pac-12.

Washington lost five players to the NFL, including dynamic receiver John Ross and three members of their secondary (all taken in the second round of the draft), but there is no shortage of talent on either side of the ball.

Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Browning returns for his third season as the starting quarterback, and looks to take the next step in his development.

While Ross is gone, Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher (combined 84 catches for 1,396 yards, 20 touchdowns) are back. Running back Myles Gaskin, who was third in the Pac-12 in rushing last year, also returns and his backup, Lavon Coleman, would start for most other teams.

Defensively, the Huskies were the best team in the Pac-12 last year and are expected to be at or near the top again.

Defensive linemen Vita Vea and Greg Gaines, linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria and safety Taylor Rapp are all among the best players at their positions in the conference.

It’s very possible that CU and Washington both enter this game at 3-0, making the showdown in Boulder one that could be in the national spotlight.

CU opponent preview: Washington Huskies

Date with CU: Sept. 23, at Folsom Field in Boulder, time TBA

Head coach: Chris Petersen, 4th season (27-14; 119-26 career)

Series: Washington leads 10-5-1

Huskies in 2016: 12-2, 8-1 Pac-12; won Pac-12 title; lost to Alabama, 24-7, in College Football Playoff semifinals

Returning starters: 13 – 7 on offense, 6 on defense

Offensive players to watch: LT Trey Adams, Jr. (1st-team All-Pac-12); QB Jake Browning, Jr. (243 of 391, 3,430 yards, 43 TD, 9 INT); RB Lavon Coleman, Sr. (114 att., 852 yards, 7 TD); RB Myles Gaskin, Jr. (237 att., 1,373 yards, 10 TD; 19 catches, 137 yards, 1 TD); WR Chico McClatcher, Jr. (31 catches, 574 yards, 5 TD); WR Dante Pettis, Sr. (53 catches, 822 yards, 15 TD); C Coleman Shelton, Sr. (2nd-team all-Pac-12).

Defensive players to watch: LB Keishawn Bierria, Sr. (70 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks); DT Greg Gaines, Jr. (35 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks); DE Jaylen Johnson, Jr. (12 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack); SS Jojo McIntosh, Jr. (67 tackles); FS Taylor Rapp, So. (53 tackles, 4 INT); NT Vita Vea, Jr. (39 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 5 sacks); LB Azeem Victor, Sr. (67 tackles, 2.5 TFL).

Notable: Browning was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2016 after tying the conference record with 43 touchdown passes. … Browning had minor offseason shoulder surgery, but was throwing “full go” in the final week of the spring, Petersen said. … The 6-foot-8, 320-pound Adams is considered one of the best left tackles in college football. … Browning and Gaskin were recently named to the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the top player in college football. … Victor missed the last four games with a broken leg. Without that injury, it’s possible he would have left for the NFL, as he was projected as a second or third-round pick. … Take it for what it’s worth, but last month, Sports Illustrated listed six Huskies (Browning, Gaskin, Pettis, Rapp, Vea and Victor) among its top 100 players in college football this season. All six were listed among the top 70, with five of them among the top 45. … CU has lost seven in a row to the Huskies (including 0-5 since joining the Pac-12) dating back to a victory over the Huskies in the 1996 Holiday Bowl.

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.