Washington, Tennessee have similar paths back to the top

ByChris Low Via <a Href="http://espn.go.com/" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
July 19, 2016, 10:20 AM

&#151; -- Their football stadiums famously bound by water, perhaps it's fitting that Tennessee and Washington are increasingly popular choices to rejoin college football's high seas this season.

The hype is understandable when you survey the two rosters. The Vols return 18 starters from a team that won its last six games a year ago and bring back experienced playmakers at most of the key positions, including nine players earning preseason All-SEC mention. The Huskies return 16 starters from one of the youngest teams in the country a year ago, led by super sophomores Jake Browning at quarterback and Myles Gaskin at running back, and bring back most of the key pieces from the Pac-12's top scoring defense.

Both schools won national championships in the 1990s and bring back long (and painful) losing streaks to divisional rivals that span a combined 23 games. Tennessee has lost 11 in a row to Florida, the Vols' last win coming back in 2004 when Ron Zook was coaching the Gators and future Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer had yet to be forced out by his alma mater. Washington has lost 12 in a row to Oregon. The Huskies haven't beaten the Ducks since 2003, and most of those games haven't been close. Oregon's 12 straight wins have come by an average margin of 23.5 points per game.

So while expectations may be skyrocketing for the Vols and Huskies, the reality is this: For either program to be whole again, skids that began before high-definition television became popular in this country need to end.

The fact that Washington was picked ahead of Oregon (and No. 2 behind Stanford) in the North Division last week at Pac-12 media days caused a few ripples, to the point that Washington coach Chris Petersen was almost cringing when having to discuss his club's place as one of the preseason's darlings.

He even referenced the Pokemon Go craze to describe the hype, and then playfully chided the media.

"Last year, the preseason hype was that we wouldn't win four games, and they were dead wrong," said Peterson, whose Huskies went 7-6, including a win over eventual Pac-12 South champion USC and a win over Apple Cup rival Washington State. "So I'm really scared that you guys are dead wrong again, because you usually are."

It's not that Petersen doesn't believe in his team. He would just rather not paint a preseason target on a team that still needs to learn how to win, and in truth, might still be a year away. As he pointed out last week, the Huskies were in every game they lost a year ago, with the exception of the Stanford matchup, and going from seven wins to championship contention is a monumental leap most teams don't make in a single year.

Ultimately, though, the most telling gauge as to where the program is in Year No. 3 under Petersen will come on Oct. 8; Washington travels to Autzen Stadium to face Oregon, with the Ducks in the midst of an alleged downturn after having the audacity to win just nine games a year ago. Never mind that Mark Helfrich had his team in the national championship game the year before. And never mind that Washington has won nine games in a season just once (2013) since its Rose Bowl championship season in 2000.

The door does appear cracked for the Huskies, who hardly need a history lesson in the Oregon-Washington rivalry, which really hasn't been much of one for more than a decade.

"If we go, you know, 10-1 or 13-1 or however many games we play, and that one loss is to Oregon," Washington senior defensive back Kevin King said, pausing and then sighing as if he didn't want to finish the sentence, "that would be tragic."

Yes, it certainly would be for those along Union Bay, where Washington last won a Pac-12 (then Pac-10) championship in 2000.

"We look at it like this is an opportunity that we've created for ourselves," King said. "Special teams don't come around often, so we've got to seize the opportunity."

As brutal as another loss to Oregon would be for Washington, another Tennessee loss to Florida might well cause a landslide on the banks of the Tennessee River.

There hasn't been this much buzz, at least legitimate buzz, surrounding the Vols' program since 2001. Coach Butch Jones, in his fourth season, has embraced the expectations and wisely so. Anything less than an SEC championship game appearance this season could make for a long winter on Rocky Top. The Vols won nine games a year ago, but three of their four losses came after they relinquished two-touchdown leads.

And, yes, one of those collapses was at Florida, which rallied in the final minutes to stun Tennessee 28-27 on a 63-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-13 play.

Florida's coach Jim McElwain reasoned afterward, "I think there's a feeling deep down, you know, that we just don't lose to Tennessee, and they didn't."

It's a feeling Florida players have trumpeted often this offseason as part of a Twitter spat that hopefully is just a precursor to what we will see on the field this Sept. 24 in Neyland Stadium.

When the ESPN Football Power Index tabbed Tennessee as the top team in the SEC East this season, Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor took to Twitter to vent: "We'll make it 12 years in a row this year."

Later, he went after Peyton Manning.

"Might as well bring the sheriff out of retirement," tweeted Tabor, who ironically enough was serving a one-game suspension last season and didn't even play against the Vols.

Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd was quick to return fire with a tweet that read: "6-0, 190. Jst talkin for attention. Not gonna end well buddy."

Tabor took aim at Tennessee again during the NBA Finals after Golden State routed Cleveland in Game 2. Tabor was discussing the Cavs' loss on Twitter with teammate Quincy Wilson and tweeted: "They ain't trippin. They just can't hang, something like UT in the fourth lol."

Even longtime Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley joined the fray when he compared the Vols to the Kardashians and wrote earlier this month that they had won another summer.

And to Dooley's point, lost in all the hype surrounding the Vols is that Florida did win the SEC East championship a year ago in McElwain's first season -- without a quarterback for much of the season and with a woefully inexperienced offensive line. The Gators are like a lot of other people around the college football world. They have to see it to believe it.

"Tennessee is Tennessee, and we're Florida," Gators safety Marcus Maye said. "So what you see out of that is what you get, and it's been that way for a while."

Jones' message to his players has been that they need to "own it," whether that's expectations, their style of play, the football program -- everything.

"That's why you come to the University of Tennessee. That's why you coach at the University of Tennessee," Jones said. "You want those expectations."

Tennessee and Washington are both trying to break strangleholds in their leagues. The past seven SEC championships have been won by Alabama, Auburn or LSU. The past seven Pac-12 championships have been won by either Oregon or Stanford.

Shaking up those mini-monopolies will mean shaking off a pair of epic droughts.

Only then will the Vols or the Huskies truly be back.

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