Is it time to embrace the hype?

It's hard to ignore at this point. Whether the pundits have Washington winning the north, winning the Pac-12, or even getting into the college football playoff (!), this much is clear: the Huskies are a chic pick for breakout college football team of 2016. 

As Chris Petersen rightfully asked at the end of spring football when talk came to the hype surrounding the UW football team - for what? For being 7-6 last year?

Heck, even CBS Sports had the Huskies behind the team they beat in the Heart of Dallas Bowl - Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles finished the year at No. 42; Washington at 44.

Yet, here's a sampling of where some pre-season magazines have the Huskies ranked heading into this coming season.

Athlon - 11

Phil Steele - 8

ESPN - 17

Sporting News - 20

Lindy's - 21

Campus Insiders - 31

Phil Steele and Athlon have UW not only winning the Pac-12 North, but the conference championship. ESPN has the Huskies winning the North, and one of their analysts, Brad Edwards, has gone out on a limb and predicted UW as one of the four college football playoff teams at the end of the season - eventually losing to Oklahoma in a semifinal game.

Wow. What a change. 

Gone is 0-12. 2008 is so far along the horizon it's barely visible anymore. Did it even happen? Chris Petersen has experts giddy about UW's prospects, even if he doesn't believe it's least publicly. 

So let's break down why the pre-season magazines believe Washington will be this year's surprise.

1) The offense will be better. The Huskies outscored teams by a combined +154 in 2015, but most of that came in the last three games of the season. Their wins were big, by an average of 30 points a game. Their six losses were by an average of nearly nine points per game. 

And when you think of the spine of Washington's offense, starting with quarterback Jake Browning, moving to running back Myles Gaskin, and also talking about key tackle Trey Adams - all are true freshmen that really learned on the job in 2015. The cliche of improvement from year one to year two applies here, and I believe it's one of the main reasons for the unbridled optimism. A lot of it is also based on how the offense finished the season. No doubt confidence is riding high. 

2) The defense should be at least as good as last year. And they were really good in 2015, the best in the Pac-12. For instance, the secondary had more interceptions (15) than touchdowns surrendered (11). That's crazy. To compare, the 2008 secondary gave up 24 touchdowns and had only seven interceptions. I could go through the litany of statistics to back up why they should be just as good in 2016, but the bottom line is they bring back a huge defensive line, linebackers set to seek and destroy, and a secondary considered one of the top-5 units in the country. It's hard to see where there's going to be drop-off with Pete Kwiatkowski's men this fall. 

3) They have a favorable schedule.  The first three non-conference games (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) should all be wins. Then they go on the road to play Arizona, a game they should have won two years ago. Then comes the stretch that will tell the story: home against Stanford on a Friday night and then at Oregon the following week. The Cardinal will have already played USC and UCLA by then. A bye sets Washington up for their final six games, the big ones being at Utah, home to USC, and then the Apple Cup. 

Washington enjoys win probabilities versus every team they play this fall minus one - at Oregon. And that game is a 47-53 split, meaning it's very close to a pick-em. That's a far cry from the beat-downs the Huskies have endured from the Ducks the last dozen years. 

Even against USC they are a 57 percent favorite to win, and against Stanford that number jumps to 62 percent. 

Now the splash of cold water to the face.

1) The Huskies continue to lose close games. They were 1-3 in one-possession games last year, and that's where the youth probably showed up. 

2) They won the games they should have won and lost the games to teams considered better than them. That also points to the 7-6 record and how they epitomized the notion of 'average'. They were 1-6 versus top-50 teams in 2015, and that just has to improve. To be fair, when playing a team below them, they took care of business - and usually in a big way. 

But it's those close calls against teams ranked higher (even if it was a slight advantage) the Huskies couldn't overcome. Some of it was self-inflicted, some of it was the better team finally showing up. 

3) The receivers and tight ends have to show up. Phil Steele had the receivers ranked eighth in the Pac-12 for position groups, the worst he had any UW position group ranked by far (the next-worst was fifth for RB, OL and DL). Athlon had the receivers ranked 10th (the next worst was fifth for RB). 

It's clear the pundits believe the losses of Jaydon Mickens and Joshua Perkins cannot be immediately bridged by players like Dante Pettis, Brayden Lenius and John Ross. Ross has the ability to be the Pac-12's most explosive offensive athlete, but his history of big plays with minimal touches needs to be expanded. The receivers won't maximize their potential if Ross is spending more time on the sideline than on the field.  

If teams can find a way to neutralize Myles Gaskin (not easy) and force the receivers to play a bigger role in the offense, the weight on Jake Browning's shoulders will be immense. In 2015 his passer rating went down nearly 85 points per game against top-50 teams. And good defenses are going to test Browning time and time again. 

4) The offensive line has to continue their improvement from the end of last year. By the last game of the 2015 season, the Huskies were flying on offense. Granted, they weren't playing exceptional defenses, but that's kind of the point: they made those teams look bad. And that's what good teams do. 

Despite the loss of only one starter (Sisosifa Tufunga), it's not as if the Huskies are loaded with a ton of experience along the offensive line. Despite having eight players with starting experience, only two - Coleman Shelton and Shane Brostek - have experience beyond 2015. So expect Washington's offensive line to be more solid with returning starters, but those starters are still relatively young in their college careers. 

Again, will the cliche apply? Will the same progress from year one to year two that everyone is banking on for Browning and Gaskin also hold true for Trey Adams, Kaleb McGary, Jake Eldrenkamp, Jesse Sosebee, Andrew Kirkland and Matt James? 

Washington Offensive Line Coach Chris Strausser has enough bodies that he should be able to replace starters with starters if the injury bug hits. It happened in 2015, which is why so many have starts under their belts in the first place. Tufunga is the only offensive lineman that started every game: most positions had three different starters throughout the year. 

5) UW will have to replace Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton right away. They were the top two sackmasters for the Huskies last year (14), as well as the top-two in tackles for loss (28.5). They replaced Feeney with Joe Mathis, an experienced player along the defensive line, but how will he adjust to playing in space? And Littleton has been replaced by senior Psalm Wooching, another veteran player that has yet to tap his full potential. It's possible Mathis and Wooching can make Husky fans forget about Feeney and Littleton, but it's not a sure bet. 

There are always going to be perceived strengths and weaknesses heading into any college football season. That's no different for this year's Washington Huskies. 

What is different is that the weaknesses are far outweighed by the anticipated strengths, the  improvements expected to push UW to the next level where they can legitimately compete for Pac-12 titles and, eventually, national championships. 

What isn't in dispute is that, when the numbers have been crunched, Washington is at least a 69 percent win favorite in eight of their 12 games. 

The four games that are closer to toss-ups are Stanford, at Oregon, at Utah, and USC. Win half of those games, games they are slight favorites to win anyway, and the Huskies have their first 10-win regular season since 2000. And we all know what happened that season. 

So is it time for Washington fans to embrace the hype? 

The numbers say yes. Top Stories