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Washington, Chris Petersen and a brief history of upstart media darlings

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Chris Petersen thinks the media gets their picks wrong, but the data suggests otherwise

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Hype is a curious creature. Usually bestowed on ostensibly the next big thing, the more extreme it is, it seems the harder it is to actually win.

Washington head coach Chris Petersen certainly understands that, feeling the oppressive heat of becoming an upstart media darling this season. After going just 7-6 last season, the Huskies are ranked eighth by college football prognosticator Phil Steele. The resulting national media frenzy has left Petersen worried -- he doesn't trust the predictive power of hype.

"Last year the preseason hype was we wouldn't win four games, and they were dead wrong," Petersen said at Pac-12 Media Days. "So I'm really scared that you guys are dead wrong again because you usually are."

Although Petersen has been quick to dismiss the suffocating expectations for his formerly average team (probably because he doesn't want them to affect his team), we can't so easily ignore them.

Do previously unranked teams like Petersen's actually meet those lofty expectations?

To answer that question, I looked back on preseason rankings (coaches' poll) dating back to 2000. From there, I compiled a chart of all of the teams that were ranked in the top-fifteen preseason but weren't ranked at the end of the previous season.

It felt fair to assume Washington would be ranked in the coach's top-fifteen because publications have ranged from ranking the Huskies eighth to 20th.

Here's the raw data back to 2000, with AP poll data as a substitute from 2000-2002:

Team Preseason Ranking Previous Season's Record Final Record
2015 Auburn 7th 8-5 7-6
2015 Notre Dame 11th 8-5 10-3
2014 Georgia 12th 8-5 10-3
2013 Oklahoma State 14th 8-5 10-3
2012 Texas 15th 8-5 9-4
2010 Oklahoma 8th 8-5 12-2
2009 LSU 9th 8-5 9-4
2007 Georgia 13th 9-4 11-2
2006 Michigan 15th 7-5 11-2
2004 West Virginia 11th 8-5 8-4
2004 Cal 15th 8-6 10-2
2002 Ohio State 12th 7-5 14-0
2001 Tennessee 8th 8-4 11-2
2000 USC 15th 6-6 5-7

From the chart, it seems Petersen's self-deprecating presumptions are off base. Out of the 14 teams that met these criteria, nine reached the double-digit win plateau, and only two didn't improve over their previous record.

So roughly 64% of teams (9/14) put themselves squarely in the conversation for a New Year's Six Bowl, if not in one. If you're a Washington fan, you should be liking those odds.  But what's to say they won't be one of those five teams that couldn't get to the ten-win pole?

If you take a look at all of those teams (2015 Auburn, 2012 Texas, 2009 LSU, 2004 WVU, and 2000 USC), there's two strong common denominators that hold them back: shaky defenses and quarterback play.

Auburn gave up 32 points per game in its losses and had two mediocre quarterbacks split time. Texas's "D" was dubbed "the worst in school history." LSU had to endure a tough schedule and receiving merely passable quarterback play from Jordan Jefferson. West Virginia's four quarterbacks that took a snap completed just 57.5% of their passes. USC's defense was 79th in the country in points allowed, and Carson Palmer threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

There aren't many top-notch teams that don't feature at least a good quarterback or defense, if not both. That combination seems to be the factor determining success for teams that haven't made it to high levels in their previous years. Great quarterbacks or defenses are calming for teams that haven't achieved such high rankings in the past -- it instills them with confidence.

That being said, Washington seems to be the prototypical team to beat the hype and live up to expectations. Don't expect Washington to fall victim to those sorts of flaws this year. Barring catastrophic injuries, those facets should be their biggest weapons in 2016.

True sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is set to take big strides forward in 2016 after having the fifth-most passing yards in school history in his freshman season. The two-time Gatorade Player of the Year set a national high school high water mark for career touchdowns -- he certainly has the talent.

Although he made some freshman mistakes last season (10 INT), he could blossom into an elite pro-style quarterback this season. His quarterback rating was just four points lower and his completion percentage seven points higher than Andrew Luck's in his first season at Stanford.

On the other side of the ball, the Pac-12's best scoring defense from last year returns seven starters, including their two leading tacklers. Don't expect much of a drop-off.

With one of the most intimidating defenses in the conference and potentially one of its best signal-callers, Washington appears poised to validate the hype. Preseason (and in-season) voting is an inexact science, but given the history of teams that have ascended in a similarly rapid way, Washington should be a legitimate Pac-12 title contender this year.