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Colorado-Washington might have the 2 best FBS assistants

Washington offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith, right, looks on as quarterback Jake Browning goes through warmups before an NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

On Monday, the Broyles Award finalists were announced, and though Washington didn’t join Colorado as one of the honored schools, it can very reasonably be argued that the Huskies and Buffaloes both have the single best coordinator of 2016. This is just one part of the fascinating backdrop to Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, architect of a defense which allowed only three points to Stanford and just 21 to a Sam Darnold-led USC offense — both on the road — deservedly received one of the five spots as a Broyles Award finalist. (The other four finalists: Jeremy Pruitt of Alabama, Don Brown of Michigan, Matt Canada of Pittsburgh, and Brent Venables of Clemson. That’s four defensive coordinators, including Leavitt, and only one offensive coordinator.)

His work in overhauling Colorado’s defense is a core reason the Buffaloes are where they are. If Mike MacIntyre hadn’t hired Leavitt, CU might still be bowl-bound, but it’s harder to imagine the Buffaloes being in the College Football Playoff hunt (albeit on the periphery of the chase) and on the verge of an 11-win season.

Colorado’s body of work is impressive not in the sense that the Buffaloes dominated — they didn’t on many occasions — but because they continuously improved. CU played Michigan vigorously but lost steam in the second half. The Buffaloes won at Oregon, but survived an offensive surge from the Ducks. Some teams — think Navy, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — have won a lot of shootouts this season, and in early October, it was reasonable to think Colorado would acquire that same identity.

Leavitt made sure CU clamped down and improved — not just to the point that it could win a 10-5 game against Stanford, but become the second-half aggressor in an authoritative second-half shutdown of an explosive Washington State offense in Week 12. Whereas CU wobbled in second halves in the first half of the season, the Buffaloes steadied themselves to a greater degree in the back stretch. Their performance against Utah this past Saturday — with one red-zone stop after another — very much fit that pattern.

Colorado celebrates after defeating Stanford 10-5 at the end of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Stanford, Calif. The Buffaloes prepare for Washington this Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game.(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Colorado celebrates after defeating Stanford 10-5 at the end of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Stanford, Calif. The Buffaloes prepare for Washington this Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game.(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Leavitt developed his players. He improved them through the course of the season. He coaxed supremely strong responses from his personnel in red-zone situations and against formidable foes (Wazzu and Utah). It’s more than fair to contend that Leavitt is the best defensive coordinator in the country.

The man who will oppose him Friday night, Jonathan Smith of Washington, could very legitimately be considered the top offensive coordinator in the land… even though he didn’t get a Broyles finalist spot.

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It’s impressive enough that Washington quarterback Jake Browning flourished in his sophomore season. The 2016 campaign began with the belief — among many pundits and observers — that Browning and Washington would certainly make noticeable improvements from 2015’s freshman go-round. The revelation of the past three months is that Browning developed more quickly and fully than many expected. That’s partly due to the work of head coach Chris Petersen, but Smith deserves recognition for cultivating Browning with great care and wisdom.

Through the first nine games of the season, Browning made very few mistakes. Smith and Washington succeeded by turning the Husky offense into a roaring machine.

Then came the punch in the mouth at the hands of USC’s athletically impressive defense.

Abruptly, the coordinator-quarterback relationship — which has to be close, honest and trusting — took on added tones and textures for Smith and Browning. The quarterback was rattled by USC’s physicality and speed. He played a sloppy, turnover-laden game against Arizona State a week later — good enough to win comfortably, but bad enough that the Sun Devils could have plucked two or three more interceptions than they did.

The measure of Smith’s work this season would be taken in the Apple Cup against Washington State — a winner-take-all game which defines legacies and careers.

Browning could not have been better. The sophomore regained his fastball in a vintage performance which recalled his dominant October. Smith fixed his pupil, giving Browning the right mindset when other coordinators would have failed. The fact that Browning flourished against Wazzu enables Smith’s performance in 2016 to be seen as first-rate work worthy of a Broyles finalist.

One could make a case that Smith has been the best offensive coordinator in America. Jake Browning’s play during the year, especially in the Apple Cup, backs up that claim.

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Colorado could have the No. 1 defensive coordinator in the FBS. Washington could have the No. 1 offensive coordinator in the FBS.

Excited about Friday’s chess match yet?

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