Why the Huskies Won't Win the Pac-10

While preparing my Pac-10 preview, the one thing that really stood out to me was that lots of people are predicting Washington as the Pac-10 champ. After some examination of that team up north, I came to the following conclusion: the Huskies will not win the Pac-10 title. My complete Pac-10 preview won't be out until closer to the season, but here's just an early taste of what is to come.

The Huskies will have an excellent offense. Cody Pickett exceeded most people's expectations last season. I for one, coming into the season, was surprised that Taylor Barton was not the starter. Barton was coming off an incredible year at the City College of San Francisco and was familiar with Rick Neuheisal's scheme. However, Pickett won the job, showing incredible arm strength and a whole lot of tenacity. (I will refrain from talking in depth about his rodeo skills due to the fact that anyone ever watching a Husky game on Fox Sports Net in 2001 was pounded with that piece of information roughly 33,868 times per game courtesy of Tom Physioc and Steve Ramsey). Pickett did make quite a few mistakes in his first year as a starter, but that is to be expected as a first year guy. The only question is whether this will actually be the year he makes the leap and fulfills his potential, which is something Cal and USC fans are still waiting for from their QBs.

The Husky offensive line will be solid as almost everyone returns. They have great size, strength, and cohesiveness, and it should allow the running game to improve over last year. The starting receivers will be one of the best combos in the Pac-10. Reggie Williams will make even more incredible plays this year, and Paul Arnold will return for his senior season as an experienced receiver ready to make teams pay for putting too much pressure on Williams. They lost Jerramy Stevens, as good as anyone the Pac-10 has seen in the 1990s at tight end, but Stevens wasn't exactly in the Cal Ripken or Chick Hearn class of consistency. Kevin Ware got plenty of experience last year while Stevens was injured.

So what's the problem? It sounds like the Huskies will improve in almost every offensive category. While that's true, their defense could (GASP!) be worse than last year. The Washington rush defense was the worst in the Pac-10 last year, and this was with NT Larry Tripplett, an NFL first-round draft pick. They lose him and a few other guys from the defense. How can they expect to improve their defense with the loss of such a key player? It was, of course, his tackle-for-loss on Ken Simonton that forced the Beavers to attempt the tying field goal in 2000 (WIDE RIGHT!) instead of being able to take a few shots at the end zone. Ben Mahdavi is a great linebacker and clearly the Husky defensive star, but he can't do it all. The other linebackers will be decent He can't put pressure on the QB every play, and he can't cover the opposing team's receivers.

The second half of the Holiday Bowl was an absolute disgrace. The Huskies had every chance to win that game, but let it slip away. Their defense was the culprit. Major Applewhite just threw it up like he was playing 500 in the backyard with Roy Williams. Williams was able to run under balls with little or no resistance from the UW secondary. If there isn't marked improvement in 2002, the Huskies will not compete for the Pac-10 title and I don't believe there will be.

Some will argue that a good offense can make up for a poor defense. The committee members of this theory will point to Oregon last year. The Ducks had the reputation of not being a strong defensive team. But what many people missed was that they were fierce defensively when they needed to be (with the exception of the Stanford game) and forced more than a fair share of big turnovers. The Ducks had good defense and it will be important again this year due to the number of teams that will compete for the title. Washington State, Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, and Cal will all have a chance at the conference crown. (Okay, I just threw Cal in there to see if you were still paying attention.) Out of that group, Washington will have the worst defense and will have to play beyond imagination on offense to bridge the gap. Washington State's offense will be almost as good, and with their strength on both lines, they should be the best team in the Pac-10. They also have a favorable schedule with USC, Oregon, and Washington all at home. As of now, I predict the Huskies will finish third in the conference, at best. The conference is just too competitive to win the title with a sub-par defense.

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