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Washington Huskies 2016 season preview

Jake Browning threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman for the Huskies. Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

We continue our team-by-team preview in the Pac-12. Up next, Washington.

2015 record: 7-6, 4-5 (Pac-12)

2016 FPI preseason rank: 13th

2016 FPI win projection: 9.3-3.1

Key losses: LB Travis Feeney, LB Corey Littleton, DT Taniela Tupou, WR Jaydon Mickens, TE Joshua Perkins

Key returnees: QB Jake Browning, RB Myles Gaskin, WR John Ross, S Budda Baker, CB Sidney Jones, NT Elijah Qualls, LB Azeem Victor, LB Keishawn Bierria

Most important player: If Browning shows significant improvement as a true sophomore, it's difficult to imagine this team won't at least approach its preseason hype. Early last year he was a game manager, with coaches just hoping he wouldn't screw things up, but as his confidence grew so did his playmaking.

Impact newcomer: While incoming freshmen RB Sean McGrew and CB Byron Murphy are bigger recruiting names -- and are likely to play -- freshman Aaron Fuller plays a bigger need position: wide receiver. The 5-foot-10, 198-pounder out of Lovejoy High School in McKinney, Texas, has shown poise and good hands in practice and earned consistent praise from coaches.

Breakout player: Joe Mathis had 30 tackles and two sacks last year playing defensive end, but he could be primed for a much bigger impact as an outside linebacker, taking over the "buck" position from Feeney. The 6-foot-2, 256-pound senior has the size and athleticism to match Feeney's eight sacks.

Position unit of strength: Washington has one of the nation's most talented secondaries, in terms of both star power (Baker, Jones) and depth. Three starters and lots of other experienced players are back, and there are some talented youngsters pushing for playing time.

Position unit of weakness: The reason there's so much hype in advance of the season is because the Huskies welcome back 15 position-player starters and seemingly don't have a glaring weakness. If there is a question, it's at receiver, where Mickens and Perkins led the team in receptions last year, and Ross will be counted on as a deep threat after coming back from a knee injury.

Biggest remaining question mark: Can they handle the hype? While some position battles are ongoing, the issue with Washington is handling high expectations. That means, for example, not botching a game at Arizona in advance of their marquee back-to-back North Division showdowns: Stanford on Sept. 30 in Husky Stadium and a visit to Oregon on Oct. 8, a rival the Huskies haven't beaten in their last 12 games.

Most important game: Because Stanford is the Pac-12 favorite, that game stands out in the conference pecking order. But there is no question Huskies fans have obsessed over the run of futility against the Ducks like nothing else since NCAA sanctions in the early 1990s. That Oct. 8 game might determine whether the season is deemed a success or failure, and some fans might even sacrifice the division crown to Stanford to beat the Ducks.

Key stat: The Huskies surrendered touchdowns on just 43.6 percent of opponents' red zone possessions. That percentage ranked first in the Pac-12 and 10th in the nation. That ability to man-up in the shadow of their goal posts is a huge reason the Huskies led the conference in scoring defense (18.8 ppg).

Upset watch: As previously noted, the Huskies visit Arizona and wily coach Rich Rodriguez on Sept. 17 before the Stanford-Oregon gauntlet. Rodriguez will have his players fully frothed and ready to humble the Huskies, so looking ahead would not be good.

Best-case scenario in 2016: With one of the softest nonconference schedules in the conference and a favorable 7/5 home/road split, the Huskies could run the table. For real. But seeing as Pac-12 teams don't do that, we'll go with a best case of 12-1 and Pac-12 champions.

Worst-case scenario in 2016: The ultimate come down would be a 7-6 finish. A fifth seven-win season in seven years -- recall the ole "7-win Steve/Sark" joke -- would bring much ribbing from all corners of the conference. That said, we have a hard time believing, barring major injuries, that this team doesn't win at least eight.

Prediction: 9-3, second place in Pac-12 North behind Stanford. The Huskies are primed for a major step under coach Chris Petersen, but it feels like at least some healthy skepticism makes sense in advance of the Huskies actually doing something.