Washington's rise ahead of schedule, raises hopes for '17

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SEATTLE (AP) Ultimately, Washington was probably a year ahead of schedule.

When Chris Petersen was introduced in December 2013, the clock started on the next chapter of Washington football and bringing the program back into the national conversation.

While there was never a timeline, the belief was it would take four years for Petersen's plan to fully develop.

So when the Huskies emerged this season, becoming Pac-12 champions and reaching the College Football Playoff before being overwhelmed 24-7 by top-ranked Alabama in the Peach Bowl on Saturday, they were in theory a year early.

Now, the playoff is an expectation.

''When you step back and look at the big picture, the bar's been moved up, been moved forward,'' Petersen said. ''Kids know it. I think we go back to square one, ground zero in a few weeks when we start training again. That's the thing we noticed last year with these guys is they had a chip on their shoulder and there was a mindset that did not go away all season long from a year ago. And so I think hopefully they've gained good confidence from this season, but I think there's also some lessons to be learned in this game, you know, what we have to do to truly compete on this elite level.''

What Washington (12-2) accomplished in 2016 can't be understated. They were the popular choice before the season to be a surprise team, then surpassed those expectation. They went beyond being a contender in the Pac-12, winning their first conference title since 2000 and returning to national relevance.

That should only serve as a springboard going into 2017.

''It went above other people's expectations,'' wide receiver Dante Pettis said. ''Our (expectations) were to win a national championship, and we fell short of that. It's good to get this far, but we fell short of what we wanted to do.''

The 2016 season for Washington will be remembered for the return from injury of John Ross and his 17 touchdown receptions ; another 1,000-yard rushing season from Myles Gaskin; a defense that overall was the best in the Pac-12; and the rise of quarterback Jake Browning .

Despite his issues in the Peach Bowl, Browning became a star. He was a borderline Heisman Trophy finalist after throwing for 42 touchdowns in the regular season, but his ability to handle pressure was an issue in Washington's only regular-season loss to USC and again against the Crimson Tide. That will be the challenge for Browning headed into next season to be better against elite defenses and being able to improvise when Washington's precision offense is thrown off rhythm.

''You remember the good times. You remember this game, but also the times in the locker room. You don't remember specific stats. You remember experiences and how everyone treated each other,'' Browning said. ''It hurts now, but it's something we're proud of.''

Defensively, the Huskies have created a framework for the second straight year. Washington gave just 17.7 points per game. They had one of the best defensive back groups in the country led by safety Budda Baker, and a defensive front of mostly underclassmen.

There will be a cost associated with Washington's success, with a handful of underclassmen possibly making the jump for the NFL. Ross, Baker, Elijah Qualls, Sidney Jones are the most likely to declare early for the NFL and all could be early-round selections.

But Washington will get leading tackler Azeem Victor back from a leg injury for 2017. Safety Taylor Rapp was the Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year. Greg Gaines, Jaylen Johnson, Ben Burr-Kirven and JoJo McIntosh all played key roles in the Peach Bowl and will return. The majority of the offense is back, including Browning, Gaskin, wide receiver Dante Pettis and four starters on the offensive line.

''I think our job as coaches will be to take them back to what got us here,'' Petersen said.


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