The Washington Huskies face another challenge this week on the road back to college football relevance -- dealing with life as a heavy favorite.
It's a nod both to Washington's 4-1 start -- its best since that same 2006 season -- as well as Colorado's struggles. The Buffs are 1-5 having gotten progressively beaten up throughout and coming off a 48-7 loss at Stanford.
UW coach Steve Sarkisian, though, said the Huskies are not in a position to take any team lightly.
"I just don't think we are at a stage as a football team that to be overconfident at all," he said. "We use the analogy quite a bit here. If we are mountain climbers and we are climbing (Mt.) Rainier here, we are pretty inexperienced climbers right now. I don't think we are at a point where we can really look down to see what we've accomplished yet. And I don't think we are at a point to where we can look up to see how much further we have to go. We have to focus on our very next step. We just don't have enough experience on the mountain right now to be focusing on feeling too good about ourselves. Because one false step and we could slide right back down."
Indeed, some fans have already begun looking to a possible showdown for first place on Oct. 22 at Stanford should the Huskies get past Colorado. But Sarkisian knows this is also a team that struggled to beat heavy underdog Eastern Washington in its opener on Sept. 3.
The Huskies, though, have come a long way since then.
Their offense has scored 30 or more points in every game, averaging 34 for the season, on pace for one of the best seasons in school history. And the defense, while still giving up a good share of yards -- at 427 per game UW ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in total defense -- has become proficient at the art of bend-but-don't-break, giving up just 37 points in the past two games.
Colorado, in its first year under coach Jon Embree as well as in the Pac-12, is 0-2 in conference play and lagging near the bottom in many key statistical areas. The Buffs are 11th in both scoring offense (21.5 per game) and scoring defense (33.3). Colorado also is likely to be without its best offensive weapon in receiver Paul Richardson, who missed the Stanford game with a sprained knee that is likely to sideline him 2-3 weeks -- he ranks among the top 10 in the conference in receptions and receiving yards.
UW, meanwhile, got healthy over the bye week, particularly quarterback Keith Price, who has battled sprains to both knees and an ankle in the first five games. Sarkisian said on Monday that Price looked the best he has since the season started.
--Even after not playing last week, UW quarterback Keith Price remains second in the nation in touchdown passes with 17. The nation's leader is Baylor's Robert Griffin with 19.
--UW coach Steve Sarkisian developed a reputation early in his Husky career as something of a gambler, often going for it on fourth down. But the Huskies are last in the Pac-12 in fourth-down attempts this year with six.
SERIES HISTORY: While this is the first game for the two teams as Pac-12 members, the two have played 11 times -- splitting the series 5-5-1. UW won the last meeting in 2000, a 17-14 win in a season when the Huskies went 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Huskies hope a week off will revive quarterback Keith Price, who has suffered sprains to both knees an ankle and a thigh bruise in the first five games. That has limited his mobility, and if he's healthy the Huskies may be able to add more designed runs to their offense. However, against a young and ailing Colorado secondary the Huskies should be able to throw at will. Senior receivers Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar should have big matchup advantages and if Price maintains his 68 percent accuracy the Huskies should be able to throw at relative will against the Buffs, who have allowed a Pac-12-high 14 touchdown passes. Colorado has a Pac-12 high 17 sacks (tied with Arizona State) so keeping Price upright could be a little bit of an issue.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: UW will get another chance to show that its recent defensive improvement has some substance. Colorado ranks 11th in the conference in total offense at 349.3 and will be without leading receiver Paul Richardson, sidelined with a knee injury.Colorado's rushing attack has been surprisingly ineffective this season at just 94.5 per game despite the presence of running back Rodney Stewart, who had more than 1,300 yards last season. Stewart had 431 yards in four games this season and the Huskies will likely try to stop him Saturday and force quarterback Tyler Hansen to throw to what is a depleted group of receivers. UW has gotten stout up front with the return of 330-pound defensive tackle Semisi Tokolahi to pair alongside nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, allowing senior Everrette Thompson to move outside to end. Injuries have forced some shuffling in the back seven but coach Steve Sarkisian says that has also added to the depth and the options the Huskies have in throwing different personnel on the field to fit different schemes.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're starting to develop the depth that's needed in this conference that when a guy gets banged up another guy can step in and play." -- UW coach Steve Sarkisian, referring to five defensive positions listed as having co-starters this week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Colorado at Washington, Oct. 15 -- After blasting Utah in its last game, Huskies hope to welcome the Pac-12's other new entry in similar fashion.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Start fast. Huskies have outscored their opponents 56-34 in the first quarter this year, their best in any quarter. If UW can come out strong again against Colorado they could turn the game into the expected rout. What UW doesn't want to do is allow Colorado to hang around.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Keith Price -- The sophomore should be the healthiest he has been since the first quarter of the season with a bye week to heal his two sprained knees, a sprained ankle and a bruised thigh. If healthy, watch for Price to add more running to his passing game,, which has been outstanding as he has 17 touchdown passes, already tying the number his predecessor, Jake Locker, had all of 2010.
RB Chris Polk -- Polk broke out for 189 yards against Utah on Oct. 1, his best game of the season, and appears to have fully recovered from his August knee surgery. He is now second in the Pac-12 in rushing behind only Oregon's LaMichael James with 611 carries, and his 116 carries are the most in the conference. Expect UW to ride him with another 25 or so carries against Colorado.
DT Alameda Ta'amu -- The senior underachieved the first three games of the season, in part due to dealing with a broken hand. But with the hand healed and getting some support from the return of Semisi Tokolahi playing alongside at the other tackle spot, Ta'amu is beginning to live up the hype of being a potential first-round pick in 2012. He was dominating against Utah and no reason he shouldn't be again against Colorado.
CB Desmond Trufant -- The junior leads the Pac-12 in passes defensed with 10, which is in part a testament to how much teams have thrown against UW but also shows how often Trufant is around the ball. He's gotten beaten a few times but also has come up with numerous big plays.
--WR Kasen Williams was listed by coach Steve Sarkisian as potentially "a gametime decision" with a high ankle sprain suffered against Utah. The true freshman was the Parade Magazine Player of the Year last season and has been getting more involved in recent weeks with 10 catches for the season.
--QB Keith Price said he feels as good as he has all year after a bye week to let his knees and ankle heal.
--Nate Fellner, who was the team's starting free safety in the first two games before suffering a hamstring injury and sitting out the last three, should be back this week and will likely split time with Justin Glenn.
--Linebacker John Timu, who suffered a neck injury against Cal, should also return this week.