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Sports >  UW football

One key question for George Kliavkoff and each of UW’s representatives at Pac-12 media day

Mike Vorel Seattle Times

They call it “Talking Season” for a reason.

Before fall camps kick off across the country, conference media days dominate the air waves — commissioners and coaches taking turns feverishly slinging cliches and painting pretty pictures of prosperous futures. The SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten have already spoken.

Now, it’s time for the Pac-12 to make its case.

And Commissioner George Kliavkoff and Co. will have plenty to cover at Pac-12 Media Day on Friday in Los Angeles, an interesting location considering USC and UCLA’s impending exit. UW head coach Kalen DeBoer, offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland, safety Alex Cook — and, more than likely, athletic director Jen Cohen — will be there as well.

Oh, and if you were wondering: The Seattle Times will be there, too. So, in the spirit of “Talking Season,” here’s one key question for Kliavkoff and the Husky contingent to answer on Friday in LA.

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff

What are you doing to ensure the Pac-12 not only survives, but positions itself to be a contender in the next iteration of the College Football Playoff?

The heat is certainly on Kliavkoff, with the Pac-12 currently engaged in an exclusive 30-day negotiating window with ESPN and FOX for its next media rights deal and outside conferences likely smelling blood in the water. Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark made it clear last week that his conference is “open for business,” and previous reports stated that the Big 12 could covet Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon … and maybe more.

Meanwhile, Kevin Warren heavily hinted Monday that the Big Ten may be open for business as well.

“I get asked every single day, what’s next?” said the Big Ten commissioner. “It may include future expansion, but it will be done for the right reasons at the right time, with our student-athletes’ academic and athletic empowerment at the center of any and all decisions that we will make regarding any further expansions.”

Action Network’s Brett McMurphy reported Monday that the Big Ten is considering adding Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington, Stanford, Cal, Miami and Florida State. A day later, CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd presented a list of targets that includes Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal.

Amid the madness, it’s Kliavkoff’s job not just to keep his conference together, but to position it to be a player in the next iteration of the College Football Playoff, set to commence in 2026. But first, he needs to present a clear, confident vision at Friday’s media day … then secure a media rights deal that satisfies his most valuable properties.

But no pressure, George.

UW athletic director Jen Cohen

How is Washington being positioned to compete for national championships for years to come?

Or, put another way: What’s best for Washington? And how is Cohen helping the Huskies achieve it?

From a competitive standpoint, UW’s most stable landing spot is certainly the Big Ten — which touts astronomical media rights revenue and near-guaranteed access to the College Football Playoff. But how realistic is a Big Ten invite, and how soon could it come? And is it possible for Washington to wait for such an invitation, while the Pac-12 (and Big 12, for that matter) seeks assurances from current or prospective members in their own media rights negotiations?

There are more sentimental factors to be considered as well. A UW departure would likely trigger the Pac-12’s ultimate annihilation. Is Washington willing to watch longtime rival Washington State fade into the semi-obscurity of the Mountain West, while the Huskies cling to higher ground?

Publicly, at least, Cohen has long prioritized Washington’s positioning as it pertains to the College Football Playoff. But solidifying UW’s athletic future could come at its longtime partner’s expense. Cohen (and, by extension, president Ana Marie Cauce) must decide which scenario best suits Washington … and execute a plan to realize that vision.

(But, with all that said, we wouldn’t expect Cohen to express anything but Pac-12 support at the conference’s media day.)

UW head coach Kalen DeBoer

What are fair expectations for Washington in 2022, and how will the Huskies reach those expectations?

OK, enough about conference realignment … for now.

In Kalen DeBoer’s first season as Fresno State’s head coach in 2020, the Bulldogs went from 4-8 to 3-3 (then 10-3 the following year).

In DeBoer’s first and only season as Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2019, the Hoosiers went from 5-7 to 8-5.

In DeBoer’s first season as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator in 2017, the Bulldogs went from 1-11 to 10-4.

DeBoer’s arrival has historically accompanied immediate improvement … but what are fair expectations for Washington? With a winnable schedule, in an uncertain division, UW should expect bowl eligibility (at a minimum) in 2022. But the Huskies’ ceiling will ultimately be determined by their quarterback play, their offensive line improvement (or lack thereof), their ability to run the ball and stop the run, their unproven pass rush, their pair of transfer linebackers, their new-look secondary … and, perhaps most importantly, their buy-in and system fit with a new coaching staff.

DeBoer’s honeymoon will end on Sept. 3, when Washington hosts Kent State inside Husky Stadium. At that point, expectations will no longer be enough.

UW offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland

What are you doing individually and collectively to ensure UW’s offensive line recovers from a disastrous 2021 season?

Of course, Kirkland will also be asked a litany of questions surrounding the ankle surgery that forced him to withdraw from the 2022 NFL draft and return for a sixth season at Washington. But despite earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in back-to-back seasons, Kirkland must improve — and he’s not alone.

Last season, an offensive line that former Husky head coach Jimmy Lake touted as the best on the West Coast finished sixth in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss allowed per game (5.17), 11th in rushing offense (98.42 yards per game) and dead last in yards per carry (3.19).

In a less predictable offensive system, with (hopefully) improved strength and conditioning, it’s reasonable to expect significant improvement from UW’s offensive line — and Kirkland must be the catalyst. Without improvements up front, everything crumbles.

UW safety Alex Cook

How can UW’s defense — specifically, its secondary — excel in the era without Jimmy Lake?

UW’s senior safety was emphatic in his answer last spring.

“As a DB unit, we always told ourselves, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s coaching us, who’s up in the offices. We’re going to hold the same standards,’” Cook said. “The standards we created weren’t created by the coaches. They were created by the players, and that’s something we take to heart.”

Still, we won’t know until September if there’s a tangible drop-off from one staff to the next; or whether Mishael Powell, Jordan Perryman, Elijah Jackson and Davon Banks are capable of carrying the torch at cornerback; or whether veteran safeties Cook and Asa Turner can finally solidify the back end, after several seasons of inconsistency.

UW’s secondary hasn’t been this unproven since 2019, when the Huskies sporadically started a trio of true freshmen in cornerback Trent McDuffie and safeties Asa Turner and Cameron Williams.

But that statement can also be extended outward; UW’s defense as a whole has plenty to prove.

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