As the 2018 season approached, the Washington Huskies held a steady place as the Pac-12 favorite ahead of the Stanford Cardinal and Oregon Ducks. The prolonged struggles of quarterback Jake Browning are causing a frustrating lack of trust in the favorites, however.
Week 4's clash between Stanford and Oregon initially seemed like a battle to stay relevant in the Pac-12 North chase. Suddenly, the showdown has larger implications.
Since the division is less settled than anticipated, the winner will claim an essential victory for future tiebreaking purposes. Given the state of the three programs, an outright winner in the North seems unlikely. Washington looks beatable.
And that is the biggest change from the preseason to now.
If the Huskies could settle their offense, they would be the clear Pac-12 choice. Losing wide receiver Dante Pettis to the NFL and tight end Hunter Bryant to injury stung, but Washington had—and has—the talent necessary to stand atop the league.
But its success depended on Browning's recovery from a discouraging junior campaign. So far, he's merely surviving.
It's something he effectively admitted after the Dawgs were just tolerable in a 45-3 home victory over the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in Week 2, per Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times:
You can defend the senior by touting his career stats, highlighted by a 2016 season that saw him throw 47 touchdowns and finish sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. Browning has completed 64 percent of his passes with 95 total scores to only 28 interceptions during his three-plus years as a starter.
That's nothing short of outstanding.
Plus, there are few worries about his toughness or his leadership. Browning has received consistent support from head coach Chris Petersen and running back Myles Gaskin.
"I feel like people really don't respect Jake as much as they should," Gaskin said recently, per Lauren Kirschman of the News Tribune. "He's been a four-year starter. He's been a leader of this team for four years. He came in as a true freshman and played his heart out. He's been playing his heart out this whole time."
All that can be true while having concerns about Browning's execution.
At this point, he's making at least one mind-numbing decision in every game that costs Washington either a scoring opportunity or gifts the opponent excellent field position.
Browning tossed a back-footed interception and lost a fumble in the red zone during a 21-16 loss to No. 9 Auburn in Week 1. North Dakota twice picked off the senior, most notably when he threw behind a wide-open receiver at UND's 35-yard line.
His post-spin interception at Utah was the latest example of this frustrating trend.
When will that cost Washington? Will it ever?
The most difficult element of this discussion is determining how much UW's top-tier defense can atone for his issues. This season, the unit has allowed only 31 points—including only three off five turnovers—and should always give the Dawgs a reasonable chance to win.
But a combination of inconsistent blocking up front and Browning's propensity for leaving protected pockets, having trouble with timing and making mistakes is a recipe for disaster. Relying on the defense to consistently bail out the offense is not an ideal strategy.
In 2017, for example, Arizona State only scored 13 points yet clipped Washington because the scoring attack couldn't, well, score. Stanford later defeated the Huskies, who had crushed the Justin Herbert-less Oregon a week earlier.
Theoretically, Washington won't have that luxury in 2018. At this level of performance, can we trust Browning and Co. to navigate both matchups and Arizona State?
After all, college football gets weird if a quarterback struggles.
In fairness to Browning, there's a whole lot of ballgame left.
His 2016 form must be somewhere in that right arm, and discounting Browning's ability is reckless. He shows enough touch to keep you engaged—and if Washington keeps winning, that's what matters. The veteran could silence this criticism and re-establish UW as the Pac-12's obvious favorite.
But the college football world is patiently waiting on that.
Otherwise, the winner Saturday in Eugene, Oregon, will have moved one critical step toward snatching the North from an exceptionally talented Huskies roster.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.