SEATTLE -- Washington isn't dodging expectations or big goals after an 11-win season and the return of several national awards candidates. The Huskies are setting them.
"Our expectations are a national championship," quarterback Michael Penix Jr. told ESPN on Monday. "That's what we all want, and that's what we believe we can get. That's just my confidence."
Penix, who led the nation in passing average (357 yards per game) in his first season at Washington, finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting in 2022. Washington's offense rose from 114th nationally in 2021 to second last year, as coach Kalen DeBoer and his staff installed a dynamic passing scheme.
Last season, the Huskies didn't reach the Pac-12 championship game but won their final seven games to finish No. 8 nationally. Several star players bypassed the NFL draft to return for 2023, including Penix, top wide receiver Rome Odunze and edge rushers Bralen Trice and Zion Tupuola-Fetui.
The Pac-12 hasn't won a national championship since USC in 2004 and hasn't had a team in the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016.
"I know that some people are scared to go at that, like, 'What if we don't win a national championship? The season ends in a failure,' but it would be wrong for us not to strive for the top," said Odunze, who led the Pac-12 with 1,145 receiving yards in 2022. "If we want to be our best version of ourselves, then what's possible for us is the national championship. We're not going to shy away from that fact, and neither are we going to sulk and moan, if that's not exactly how it works out.
"We're going to work our ass off and go out there and compete."
Odunze and his teammates say their coaches encourage a player-driven program, which includes setting goals. He wants to help Penix become Washington's first Heisman winner, while also trying to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver.
The fourth-year player acknowledged Washington is "skipping steps," but he and others felt they were good enough to win the Pac-12 last year, despite finishing 3-6 in 2021 and going through a coaching change.
"We all hated the position we were in," Trice said. "We were mad, we were angry, and helping our new coaches in helped drive that hunger that we had. Pac-12 championship, Mike getting Heisman, I'm hoping to get defensive player of the year and going all the way, CFP, we're more than capable."
Tupuola-Fetui noted that Washington's schedule sets up better for a CFP push. After not facing Utah and USC, the teams that met for a Pac-12 title in 2022, the Huskies get both on the slate as well as Oregon and Oregon State, and Boise State and Michigan State in non-league play.
"If we come out of that unblemished, you have to respect us," said Tupuola-Fetui, a third-team AP All-America selection in 2020 who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last year. "SC's on there, Utah's on there, Boise State's a quality nonconference opponent, Michigan State. All the excuses that could have been thrown at us before are not going to be able to, as long as we handle our business."
Despite the Pac-12's CFP drought, Tupuola-Fetui thinks the league is set up to break through this season. Five teams won 10 or more games last season, and the league returns an impressive group of quarterbacks, led by USC's Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner, along with Penix, Utah's Cameron Rising and Oregon's Bo Nix.
Washington last won the Pac-12 in 2018, and the program's last national championship came in 1991.
"We're just not beating around the bush when it comes to the potential of this team," Tupuola-Fetui said. "We had a lot of guys that could have entered the draft last year, who decided to come back. That's not common. Being open about what we want, it keeps us on that path of why we're coming in every day."