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2021 Preview: Defense Leads the Way for No. 12 Washington

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Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: Washington

Washington's 2020 season was especially abrupt: The Huskies went 3–1 and won the North, then were unable to play in the Pac-12 title game due to COVID-19. Just like that, it was all over. Now, Washington returns plenty of talent to repeat as division champs—particularly if it can kickstart an offense that lagged behind a reliable defense.

Can't Miss: Edefuan Ulofoshio

This spot would have been reserved for outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection last season after notching seven sacks and three forced fumbles. Unfortunately, Tupuola-Fetui suffered a torn Achilles in April and is likely to miss the entire season. Instead, the defensive standout to highlight is linebacker Ulofoshio, who led Washington with 47 tackles and four passes defended in 2020. He’s one of the best tacklers in the Pac-12 and the heart and soul of the Huskies’ defense.

Washington linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio

Key Question: Is Dylan Morris the answer at quarterback?

Washington's offense wasn’t bad in an abbreviated 2020 season, but it wasn’t great, either. The Huskies scored more than 30 points just once and lacked explosiveness, with only 17 plays of 20 or more yards. The pieces around Morris should be enough, particularly an experienced offensive line led by likely first-round NFL draft pick Jaxson Kirkland that allowed just one sack in 2020. If Morris falters, bluechip freshman Sam Huard could step into the starting role.

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X-Factor: Cade Otton

If the Huskies’ offense is to take a step forward, it will need another standout season from tight end Otton. The 6' 5", 250-pound junior was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and a Mackey Award semifinalist a year ago after leading Washington with 18 receptions for 258 yards and three scores. Washington’s top two wide receivers (Puka Nacua and Ty Jones) each transferred away, and whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will need to develop chemistry with his perimeter weapons eventually. In the meantime, though, Otton remains as a dependable—and explosive—security blanket.

Date to Circle: Nov. 6 vs. Oregon

Washington’s schedule is favorable, with top conference foes all traveling to Seattle and the Huskies missing USC and Utah in the South rotation this year. Getting the Ducks at home is a massive advantage, and the two sides were robbed of playing each other in 2020. A Sept. 11 trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan looms large as well, but Washington’s hopes for winning the Pac-12 will likely hinge on its matchup with Oregon.

The Bottom Line

Under Jimmy Lake’s lead, Washington has produced one of the most consistently stingy defenses in the country. That remained the case in Lake’s first season as head coach and should persist in 2021. If the Huskies’ offense can reach its untapped potential, Washington could be in store for a special season.

More Top 25 Team Previews:

No. 25 Nevada
No. 18 Florida
No. 17 Oregon