I'll confess that this preview was harder for me to write than I originally thought it would be. Washington is a team that presents a rather bizarre conundrum that doesn't exist with other teams in the Pac-12. While Washington has the best defense in the entire Pac-12 and has a lot of strong qualities to write about, they do so without any star players. Indeed, they don't have a single five-star recruit on their entire team, and with the exception of some local recruits, even four-star recruits on their team are far and few between.
So, how do you reconcile this elite, suffocating defense with the fact that there isn't a single star player to speak of?
And how do you explain Washington's rapid improvement on the defensive side of the ball when you consider their massive talent drain after the previous season? Last year, Washington lost three defensive players in the first round of the NFL draft, and a fourth defensive player in the second round of the NFL draft. Yes, you read that right; FOUR defensive players from Washington went in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
And, here's the kicker: last year, Washington's defense wasn't that great. Don't get me wrong; it was a good defense, but it wasn't elite.
So, you remove all of the talent from Washington's defense, and suddenly they improve rapidly to become the best defense in the Pac-12 and one of the best defenses in the entire country. What is going on, Washington!?
Washington's defense has held its opponents to an average of just 16.8 points/game.
Last week, they played USC who is loaded with all kinds of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Not only do they have four-star recruit Cody Kessler as QB, but Kessler also has 5-star receivers JuJu Smith and Adoree Jackson to find as targets. Hell, practically every single one of USC's players on the offensive side of the ball is either a four- or five-star recruit.
So, you take this USC offense loaded with talent, and put them against that Washington defense devoid of a single name and what happens? Washington holds USC to just 12 points the entire game!
What the hell, Washington!?
Fact is that Washington's defense is elite, and huge credit should be given to defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. This is the same man that turned Boise State into an elite defensive program, and had three consecutive years (2010-2012) where Boise State was in the top ten in the country in terms of points allowed by its defense. In fact, in 2010 the S&P model created by Bill Connelly had Boise State as the #1 defensive team in the entire country.
Kwiatkowski has continued his success at Washington and even after losing a lot of his talent last year, in his second year as Washington's defensive coordinator, he's instilled a system that makes this ragtag group of Washington defenders one of the very best defensive units in the entire country, and a defense that strikes fear in the heart of its opponents.
Enter: Stanford. Whereas Washington's defense has been very stingy (to say the least), Stanford's offense has looked completely unstoppable, averaging 45 points/game in the last five games, while QB Kevin Hogan and RB Christian McCaffrey have put up cartoonish numbers. Kevin Hogan is currently ranked first in the Pac-12 for passer efficiency, with a passer efficiency rating of 202.9 against Pac-12 opponents. This puts him in first place by a country mile, as the second-place quarterback in the Pac-12 is nearly a whopping 45 points behind him (Vernon Adams of Oregon currently is in second place with a 159.2 passer efficiency rating). Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey looks like he might just deserve a Heisman as he's leading the country in all-purpose yards and is on pace to obliterate the single-season all-purpose yard record set by Barry Sanders in 1988. In light of all of this, some are even saying the Stanford team that just played UCLA might be the best in the country.
In some ways, this match looks like the quintessential example of an unstoppable force against an immovable object.
So, which will prevail?
Advantage: Stanford. Whereas Washington's defense and Stanford's offense both look elite, the true story is told on the weaker side of the ball for each team. Stanford has a very strong defense, whereas Washington has a questionable offense (especially since Washington QB Jake Browning is injured and may not be able to play against Stanford).
Although it will be difficult for Stanford to put up the 56 points it put up against UCLA, it will be much harder for Washington to put up very many points at all. And even playing against this elite Washington defense, Kevin Hogan's insane season that he's put together thus far should continue. I don't expect Christian McCaffrey to put up cartoonish numbers in this game that he's been known for in the last several, but since Washington had a hard time shutting down Cal QB Jared Goff, I expect Kevin Hogan's arm to prevail and deliver Stanford enough points for victory.
Final score prediction: Stanford 31, Washington 21.
To hear more details behind Matt's 31-21 score prediction, click below to listen to the most recent episode of his radio show, Cardinal CounTree: