College football: Why the Washington Huskies will finish 8-4
OK, this is my annual Husky football prediction post. I'm adding Washington State to the mix this year, and I'll do the Cougars post Thursday morning. For now, though, let's focus on Washington.
It's an interesting year for the Huskies. Overall, the program is improving at a solid rate. This roster is deeper and more talented than it was in coach Steve Sarkisian's first three seasons. They won't have to play nearly as many true freshmen, though three rookies (safety/nickelback Shaq Thompson and wide receivers Kendyl Taylor and Jaydon Mickens) will start. They have more bona fide stars -- quarterback Keith Price, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, wide receiver Kasen Williams -- than they've had. And they have some quality players who could perform a notch below those stars: cornerback Desmond Trufant, defensive end Josh Shirley, safety Sean Parker and defensive tackle Danny Shelton are the most prominent among them.
After back-to-back bowl appearances, the Huskies are living by the motto "Take the next step" this season. And there's a chance they will if they can survive a challenging early schedule. The Huskies are no slam dunk; they have serious issues at linebacker, and the offensive line is questionable. Their defensive line has a lot to prove, and they're going to need to find some new weapons at running back and wide receiver. Is the roster top heavy enough to mask some of the problems? That's an interesting question, and depending on what you think, you'll be either optimistic or pessimistic about this season.
This might wind up being a season in which progress is measured by examining the gray area within a record that looks similar to the past two seasons.
The Huskies were 7-5 during the regular season a year ago, and after a wild 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl, they landed at 7-6, the same record they had in the previous year. Without question, though, 2011 was more solid than 2010 because the Huskies didn't have to rally from a 3-6 start to make a bowl, they found fluidity in their offense, and they got off to a 5-1 start and played from ahead the entire year despite an horrendous defensive showing that led to firings and massive change.
This year, though 6-6 or 7-5 seems like a safer bet, I have the Huskies going 8-4. It isn't a big step, but given the schedule and the fact that this team is far from a sure thing, it's quite a task. And if the Huskies accomplish this, it will set the stage for what could be a dominant showing in 2013, when Price is a senior and Seferian-Jenkins and Williams are juniors possibly thinking about the NFL. Yeah, I know: Wait Till Next Year is getting old. But if this team goes 8-4 in the regular season and wins its bowl game, 9-4 will look like significant progress. And expecting double-digit victories the next season won't be a stretch.
So, let me break down how I see this season going. First, a few of assumptions:
1. I expect Price to stay healthy this season and throw for 3,500 yards and 25 or more touchdowns. If he doesn't stay healthy, if he's bothered by repeated leg injuries again this year, every thought must be revised. But right now, the redshirt junior quarterback looks great. He has put on 15 pounds, and it hasn't affected his mobility. He'll be smarter about not holding onto the ball so long this season. If Seferian-Jenkins and Williams have big sophomore seasons, the losses of receivers Devin Aguilar and Jermaine Kearse won't seem so huge. Price threw for 3,063 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns as a first-time starter last season. Without running back Chris Polk, the offense will be more dependent on Price this season. Adding 500 yards to his passing total is realistic. Compared to last season, I went conservative on the touchdown passes, but 25 is still a lot.
2. I expect the defense to be functional -- not great, but not terrible anymore -- under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. Let's just say top half of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Maybe No. 50 of 120 teams in total defense. The Huskies were 106th last year, so that would give them a boost. That's good enough to be highly competitive, provided the offense continues to thrive.
3. I expect the Huskies to be a more physical team. They'll still be inconsistent in this area, but they won't get pushed around as much on the offensive and defensive lines.
4. Even though Husky Stadium is being renovated and the team is playing the season at CenturyLink Field, I expect the Huskies will continue to have a strong home-field advantage. This is important to note. The advantage won't be as great as Husky Stadium, because of a lack of familiarity for both the players and fans, and that will make for a different atmosphere. But teams still won't come to Seattle and have a good time. The Clink can get as loud as you want it to be. The Huskies should remain a strong home team.
5. I expect Seferian-Jenkins and Williams to live up to their billing, and Thompson to turn in a freshman season the caliber of what ASJ did last year. This is key. If the Huskies truly have three young studs on the roster, three future high NFL draft picks, it could boost this team in ways that could surprise even an optimist. Do they have that in ASJ, Kasen and Shaq? I think they do. And their talent, along with Price's efficiency, could mask quite a few of the Huskies' problems.
If too many of those assumptions prove wrong, that's where my prediction will go wrong. But assuming I'm right, here's how I view the schedule:
Games they should win
Home: Sept. 1 vs. San Diego State
Home: Sept. 15 vs. Portland State
Home: Oct. 27 vs. Oregon State
Road: Nov 17 at Colorado
Comment: The home games against Oregon State and Utah are similar in difficulty, so I basically picked one of them as a "should win" and made the other a "50/50" game. The Utes are a little better than the Beavers, I think. But Oregon State beat the Huskies 38-21 last season in Corvallis. Oregon State (3-9 in 2011) should be better next season, but the Huskies will be well aware that. The other three games are must wins if the Huskies want to have a progressive season. Saturday's opener against San Diego State will be the toughest of that bunch.
Games they should lose
Road: Sept. 8 vs. No. 3 LSU
Road: Oct. 6 vs. No. 5 Oregon
Home: Oct. 13 vs. No. 1 USC
Comment: The gap between the Huskies and the nation's top five teams is still considerable. And the Huskies face three of those elite squads in their first six games, as well as nationally-ranked Stanford. Do they have a major upset in them? Well, they're due for one. They failed to pull off a shocker a year ago, and Sark has had some nice upsets during his short run.
Home: Sept. 27 vs. No. 21 Stanford
Road: Oct. 20 at Arizona
Road: Nov. 2 at California
Home: Nov. 10 vs. Utah
Road: Nov. 23 at Washington State
Comment: Five games -- nearly half the schedule -- could go either way, and I'm betting that most people would put that Oregon State game on this list. Ultimately, the Huskies' season will be judged by how many of these games they win.
I think the Huskies will win all of the four games they should and lose the three that they should. Then, they'll go 4-1 in the 50/50 games. That's a helluva request. For certain, it means beating either Stanford at home or winning at Cal. But the preseason polls have the Huskies as a fringe Top 25 team (27th most votes received in AP poll, 26th in coaches poll). If they wind up being that good, they'll need to finish 8-4, and they'll need to win their share of tough games.
Other keys to this season, at least in terms of schedule managing:
- With four of their first six games against ranked competition, the Huskies need to emerge from those games with at least a 3-3 record to have a shot at 8-4. Most people are probably going to expect a 2-4 mark and a second-half rally. Stanford looks vulnerable to me, and the Cardinal will face the Huskies right after they play USC (though there will be a 12-day break). The Huskies must win that game to take the next step.
- The swing games of the season: Nov. 2 at Cal, Nov. 10 at home against Utah. That's a back-to-back set of games that could define the season. The Cal game could be another God's Play type of game. It should come down to the fourth quarter. Utah should have a top-20 defense nationally, and the Utes will be more adjusted to the Pac-12 than they were a year ago. No matter how you look at the schedule, I think we should agree that the Huskies have to split those games, at least, to have a winning record this season.
- Several Pac-12 teams are still in periods of transition or outright rebuilding, and the Huskies need to capitalize on that. They can win at Arizona because Rich Rodriguez will need a year, maybe two, to get the Wildcats going. What's Cal, which went 7-6 last year, going to be like? It feels like a program that has peaked, and the Huskies just poached their top recruiter and their offensive coordinator. Is Stanford really going to remain top-25 caliber without Andrew Luck and all the talent the Cardinal lost? Will Oregon State leap from 3-9 and return to its usual level of competitiveness? How much of a leap will Washington State take in Year 1 under Mike Leach? Will Colorado remain the league bottom feeder? Outside of USC and Oregon, every team in the conference has major concerns. The fact the Huskies have momentum from two straight winning seasons and have gained clarity on what it takes to be good in Sark's system is a factor that shouldn't be. The Huskies have those three games that seem impossible right now. Beyond those, anything can happen. How stable will the Huskies be when playing against manageable competition?
- One final thing, that really isn't about schedule managing but is pertinent: Most teams on the rise tend to have a season in which they go an almost magical run ahead of schedule and serve notice that they're a force. A season of great overachieving. The Huskies haven't done that yet. They've had incremental improvement. They've had some upsets (USC in Sark's first and second years and Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl included), but they haven't had a season in which it felt like everything went their way for an extended period. The 4-0 finish to Jake Locker's final season is the closest thing, but that team faced so much adversity early in the year that it just felt like things were evening out. Because the Huskies have a lot of elite young talent, this could be one of those surprisingly good years that, five years from now, makes perfect sense when we look back and see what those young players went on to do. It's the right kind of year for a gifted, young Pac-12 team to do that. The Huskies can be that team.
The 2012 Huskies: 8-4. That's my prediction. And when the season goes nothing like this, I might, uh, accidentally erase this post. You better save the cached version now.
All right, I made my prediction. Am I right? Wrong? So far off that you don't even know where to begin? I want your thoughts now. I'm listening.