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How does Chris Petersen improve? Start with UW’s season opener against No. 9 Auburn

Washington head football coach Chris Petersen motions as he speaks at a news conference Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Seattle. Petersen hates expectations, so he’s likely loathing Washington being the overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12 and likely top 10 when the preseason AP poll comes out. The Huskies open fall camp on Friday in preparation for the Sept. 1 opener against Auburn. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Washington head football coach Chris Petersen motions as he speaks at a news conference Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Seattle. Petersen hates expectations, so he’s likely loathing Washington being the overwhelming favorite in the Pac-12 and likely top 10 when the preseason AP poll comes out. The Huskies open fall camp on Friday in preparation for the Sept. 1 opener against Auburn. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

Chris Petersen harps continuous improvement. Every drill, every practice, every game, get better. He’s the first to say that starts with himself and the rest of the University of Washington football team’s coaching staff.

So after eight exceptional seasons at Boise State and now entering his fifth year having traded his Boise blue for Montlake purple, where is Petersen still looking to grow?

“I would like to be more positive, more poised, more optimistic,”Petersen said. “All those things. Start with that.”

So, basically, this is same ol’ Petersen the person.

But Petersen the coach is about to embark on a season of what could be the next step in his career, though he’ll probably never admit that.

He’s handled the success as the underdog, but can he be the top dog? Sixth-ranked UW is the unanimous favorite to win the Pac-12 North and it heads to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for a 12:30 p.m. Saturday matchup against No. 9 Auburn that could very well determine the Huskies’ bid at playing in the College Football Playoff in January.

But, no, Petersen certainly doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s one game and our first game against a really good team that a lot of people are going to talk about throughout the season – we know that,”Petersen said. “But I think it’s important that the coaches have this in perspective. It’s one game against a really good team.”

And here was his kicker:

“No matter what happens, it doesn’t make or break our season,”Petersen proclaimed. “It just doesn’t. That’s the mindset. We’re on to the next thing. What did we learn? How can we improve, no matter what happens in that outcome?

“We understand that we’re playing a really good team from a really good conference and we just studied the tape, but I think we can’t make this bigger than it is.”

The rest of the college football world will have no problem doing that for him.

The other two schools on UW’s nonconference schedule are North Dakota and BYU with the rest being Pac-12 play. So the Huskies’ season-opening showing against an SEC stalwart bears weight that might not only apply to UW,but the rest of the Pac-12, which went 1-8 in bowl games last season including UW’s 35-28 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Some say this could prove the Pac-12’s merits when the playoff committee determines at the end of the season what four teams are the final four playing for a shot at a national championship.

“It’s us playing Auburn. We’re not playing their whole conference and the rest of the Pac-12 has nothing to do with this game,” Petersen said. “So many are looking at the bowl record from last year and they’re putting it on us like this is a chance that’s going to happen. We don’t see it like that. Nobody else is playing Auburn in our conference except for us. This is about us. It’s about playing one of the top teams in the country and we’ll see what happens.”

There’s reasons why Auburn’s ranked so high – and not just because it plays in the SEC. Petersen has reviewed much of the tape on the Tigers’ defensive front seven, with one of that famed program’s best defensive lines they’ve had in decades. Some say Auburn’s defensive line will be the best in the country.

That’s why when Petersen was asked about how fourth-year starting quarterback Jake Browning has looked in fall camp, the coach deflected the attention away.

“Everybody wants to talk about him and that’s the last guy I want to talk about because it starts with the line,” said Petersen of UW’s offensive line which could have four returning starters if left tackle Trey Adams is able to return from the knee surgery that ended his 2017 season. “That front seven for Auburn is super athletic. If we don’t let (Browning) set his feet or get the run game going no one is going to have a chance. I think Jake is going to be fine, but they have some guys who have played a lot of football on that defensive side and they are very stout and physical.”

That Auburn defense actually reminded Petersen of one he saw in the College Football Semifinal two seasons ago.

“It seems very Alabama-ish to me,” he said.

And the last time UW played Alabama, the top-ranked Crimson Tide took a 24-7 win over the Huskies to head to the national championship.

So maybe this is what Petersen needs to take the next step as a coach. He’s already taken UW to back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins with winning seasons in each of his previous four years, but now can he take an SEC team, much like he did when he took Boise State to Georgia for a season-opening win over the Bulldogs.

Only this time, he’s not working as the comfortable underdog.

“We push our guys as hard as we ever have,” Petersen said. “If there’s a theme, and we got a couple themes we’ve gone through in this program,but the one is the state of constant improvement, and it starts with me. That’s one of the beauties of life – if you’re not getting better, what are you doing?But it starts with myself and our coaches and it’s about growing and getting better every year, and I expect to be a little better than hopefully I was last year and hopefully I don’t make some of the same mistakes that I made last year.”

Cleanest program?

Petersen and Stanford coach David Shaw shared the most votes in a recent poll of active college football coaches that asked which coaches were perceived to run the cleanest and most by-the-book programs in the country.

Petersen and Shaw both received 17 percent of votes from their peersin the poll run by CBS Sports, which contacted one-fifth of the 129 active coaches among FBS teams. Duke’s David Cutcliffe was next (13 percent) followed by Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, Wyoming’s Craig Bohl and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst each at 8 percent.

Petersen was asked about that on Sunday before he knocked on the table he sat behind.

“In my experience our players have been really good,” Petersen said. “We spend a lot of time trying to educate and talk to them and it’s a little bit of you get what you emphasize in both life and coaching. I’m not trying to sit up here and say we haven’t made mistakes because we’re far from that, but we work hard at it and we try to pay attention to it. There’s been things that happen that we’ve talked about ad-nauseam and it’s like, ‘How can this happen?” But it does.

“When you’re with 60 people and 110-plus players that’s a lot of people. … We know it’s not all going to go according to plan, that’s just how it goes in life. But we do our best to do things the right way.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677; Twitter: @TJCotterill
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