Chris Petersen caused much merriment a couple of years ago when he picked Mike Leach as the Pac-12 coach with whom he would most like to take a road trip.
That led to many amusing scenarios about how such a trip would go down – but let’s take it one step further.
What if they invited along the other celebrity football coach in the state – Pete Carroll of the Seahawks?
You could fill volumes speculating on the conversation, musical choices and driving habits of those three.
But if this mythical road trip had taken place this past summer, the trio might have come to an agreement on one topic of conversation: It’s time for each of them to break through to the next level of success — one that, in each case, stands tantalizingly close.
For Carroll, that would be a return voyage, of course. The Seahawks reached the pinnacle in 2013 with a Super Bowl triumph and came within one ever-maddening yard of repeating the following year.
But since then, the Seahawks have receded from the upper echelon of the NFL: eliminated in the divisional playoff in 2015 and ‘16, out of the playoffs in ‘17 and knocked out in the wild-card round last season.
Petersen’s Huskies are circling in the orbit of the college football elite, but they haven’t yet made the final landing.
The Huskies have won double-digits three years in a row for the first time in school history.
They’ve won the Pac-12 title two of the past three years.
They made the College Football Playoff for the first time in 2016 and returned to the Rose Bowl last season for the first time since 2000.
That’s not too shabby by any standards.
But keeping Washington from total satisfaction is the way each of those seasons ended, with tough bowl losses and a dream deferred: 24-7 to Alabama in the Peach in 2017, 35-28 to Penn State in the Fiesta in 2018, and 28-23 to Ohio State in the Rose last year.
Leach’s Cougars, meanwhile, are on a remarkable upswing, putting together the best four-year stretch in school history.
They’ve won 37 games in that span, just two fewer than Washington. Last year, they led the Pac-12 with 11 wins — a school record — and produced the conference Coach of the Year (Leach) and Offensive Player of the Year (quarterback Gardner Minshew).
Their No. 10 finish in the final Associated Press poll, following an Alamo Bowl win over Iowa State, marked the first time they’ve ever ended the season as the highest-ranked Pac-12 school.
Oh, yeah – the Cougars have also beaten Oregon four straight years (the last three by double digits), and defeated Stanford three straight years.
Last year, they prevailed over Pac-12 South champion Utah, 28-24.
So what’s the issue on the Palouse?
Well, it’s the small matter of the Huskies, who have conquered the Cougars six straight times – including all five of the Petersen-Leach encounters.
Twice, WSU could have won the Pac-12 North with an Apple Cup victory.
You can bet that Leach would turn up his Jimmy Buffett CD to drown out the conversation if that topic were broached.
But all three coaches have a path in 2019 to get to the hallowed grounds that have eluded them.
And all three have potential pitfalls that could detour them. In the case of Leach and Petersen, one’s success could spell doom for the other.
That will make for a fascinating and compelling season on all three fronts.
The Seahawks’ season-ending loss to Dallas in last year’s playoffs had barely ended when Carroll began gushing about how the Seahawks had the right group assembled to ascend back to championship level.
Perhaps that was merely to distract from the criticism of their run-heavy offensive game plan – but Carroll has continued that tune into the preseason, even as concerns over Seattle’s pass rush and secondary ramp up.
“I see us having a chance to be a really complete football team with attitude, with energy, with speed,” Carroll said at the outset of training camp. “We are really big, and we are really fast. That’s a good place to start.”
Another good place to start is with a quarterback, Russell Wilson, who appears poised for a breakout season in the midst of an already-accomplished career.
And with a linebacker corps that may be the best in the league, having smartly re-upped Bobby Wagner.
And with an offensive line that has gone from liability to strength, enabling the power running game for which Carroll salivates.
The main questions, of course, are whether the Seahawks can thrive with an atavistic reliance on the run in a pass-happy era, and whether the trade of Frank Clark and suspension of Jarran Reed will deplete the pass rush to crisis proportions.
Wilson has said many times that last year’s Seahawks team reminds him of 2012 in laying the groundwork for bigger things to come in terms of growth and development.
The Seahawks hope that is prophetic, and the Huskies hope they have the same vibe going on Montlake.
One difference, of course, is that in college, the key players leave periodically for the pros, requiring a nearly constant influx of new talent to churn through the system.
And that’s an area where Petersen has excelled, racking up a series of highly rated recruiting classes. With the departures of players such as Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, Kaleb McGary, Ben Burr-Kirven, Greg Gaines, Taylor Rapp, Byron Murphy and more, the Huskies will need a new core to emerge.
But there’s enough hope for the new wave, and hype for the holdovers, to warrant the Huskies’ No. 13 ranking in the AP preseason poll.
Huskies fans have higher aspirations, however. To attain them will almost certainly require transfer quarterback Jacob Eason to show off the arm talent that was not present in Browning despite his record-setting numbers.
The Huskies have a schedule that favors another playoff run, with Utah, Oregon and Washington State all at home. It’s a matter of the talent coalescing, and them not blowing a winnable game, as happened last year at Cal and two years ago at Arizona State.
But mostly, the Huskies must finally figure out a way to beat the power schools that have handled them in the spotlight. That must be changed to show, once and for all, that Washington belongs in their ranks.
For Leach, it has been a difficult slog to break out of the early malaise of his WSU days – just 12 total wins his first three years, when his hefty contract might have been the only thing keeping the Pirate on the Palouse.
But Leach’s quirky ways and ingenious offense have taken hold, and now take on a life of their own. The Cougars nevertheless continued to be doubted (a predicted fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 North in the media poll) — though to a lesser extent each year.
“Yeah, that’s the great thing about us, is every season everybody thinks we’re going to get our head kicked in, then we don’t,” Leach said at Pac-12 Media Day, via Theo Lawson of the Spokesman-Review. “So everybody gets to be stunned and surprised, so it’s fun for everybody.”
Speaking of fun for everybody, one thing that can be counted upon is Leach unearthing a quarterback who can run his Air Raid to maximum effect, topped by Minshew breaking the Pac-12 single-season passing record last year.
Most people expected Eastern transfer Gage Gubrud, who had 53 touchdowns and over 5,700 total yards in 2016, to be the latest one to amass the yards, but senior Anthony Gordon was named the Week 1 starter.
The Cougars also have an extraordinarily deep receiving corps, an explosive running back in Max Borghi (plus Notre Dame transfer Deon McIntosh), and an offensive line Leach believes is his best unit despite losing Andre Dillard to the NFL.
They also have impact players sprinkled throughout the defense (though the loss of ineligible safety Jalen Thompson is a big blow).
In other words, overlook the Cougars at your own peril.
But the ultimate perception of their season will likely be determined on the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 29, when they face their nemesis Huskies in Seattle.
Finally reverse that outcome, and it might be Leach and not Petersen who has the bragging rights in 2019.
And you know what that could mean, postseason:
Road trip to Key West!