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UW's test: remaining top Dawg

SEATTLE — It took Chris Petersen all of three years to put Washington back in the national conversation.

Now, stay there.

That has been the predominate message circling around the Huskies since their disappointing 24-7 loss to Alabama in the national semifinals. The loss followed the greatest season for Washington since 2000 — including the Huskies' first conference title in 16 years.

While there is little belief that the success of last season was an anomaly, the last thing the Huskies want is any sort of backslide after returning to the national stage.

"I don't think you reload. That's not our mentality at all. At all," Petersen said. "We rebuild. That's just the mindset. We're not even kind of the same team we were last year. So that's always our process."

This is what Petersen was expected to do when he jumped from Boise State to Washington. The Huskies were eventually going to return to prominence but it came perhaps earlier than expected.

It helped that quarterback Jake Browning had a brilliant sophomore season, throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns. Browning has lost a couple of weapons but is also healthier after undergoing minor offseason shoulder surgery. Browning's development was the biggest reason Washington's offense went from averaging 30.6 points per game during his freshman season to 41.8 points per game last year.

On the other side, Washington was the only team in the Pac-12 to allow less than 20 points per game and will be strongest in the front seven with the return of defensive linemen Vita Vea and Greg Gaines, and linebackers Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor. But there are major holes in the secondary where three key starters are gone to the NFL.

Here are other things to watch:

REPLACING ROSS: John Ross was an unstoppable threat on the outside that Browning could depend on. Ross had 81 receptions and 17 touchdown catches last season, numbers the Huskies must find a way to replace. Much of the responsibility will fall to senior Dante Pettis, coming off a breakout year where he had 53 receptions and 15 touchdowns. The Huskies will need to find a complement to Pettis, whether it's speedy Chico McClatcher, Andre Baccellia or Aaron Fuller.

"If you play wide receiver I think every receiver wants to be the guy and get as many touches as you can," Pettis said.

SECONDARY CONCERN: Washington saw three defensive backs — Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King — selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. That's left plenty of voids to fill in the secondary.

Jojo McIntosh and Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year Taylor Rapp provide some stability, but the question will be who replaces King and Jones on the outside. Expect some combo of Byron Murphy, Austin Joyner, Elijah Molden and Myles Bryant to be responsible for trying to keep the Huskies an elite pass defense.

"I feel like those guys are ready," McIntosh said. "We have so much talent, so much depth. I don't really know how to describe it."

STABLE OF BACKS: Myles Gaskin has a chance at his third straight season of more than 1,300 yards rushing. Lavon Coleman is a bowling ball complement to Gaskin who rushed for more than 100 yards three times last season. The Huskies have a deep backfield to go with Browning in the pass game.

The newcomer to watch: freshman Salvon Ahmed, who may be too fast not to find a way to get on the field as a freshman as both a runner and pass catcher.

KEY GAMES: The final five weeks will be the highlight of the Huskies' schedule. Washington hosts UCLA on Oct. 28, followed by Oregon on Nov. 4, at Stanford on Nov. 10, home for Utah on Nov. 18 and close out the regular season on Nov. 25 in the Apple Cup against Washington State. The back half of the schedule makes up for an easy start to the season.

PREDICTION: Washington is rightfully the favorite in the Pac-12 North. The non-conference schedule is soft and the majority of its challenging conference games come at home. November will answer whether the Huskies are College Football Playoff contenders.

OPENER: Sept. 1 at Rutgers.

In this April 22 photo, Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3) looks to pass during the team's spring game at Husky Stadium in Seattle. [AP FILE PHOTO]