Third Down: Defense
The Huskies' defense was awful last year, and doesn't return much in the way of experience or star power. It could be a long year in Seattle.
The one bona fide star on the Huskies' D, linebacker EJ Savannah, is currently not practicing with the team, due to academic ineligibility and other, unspecified, team issues. To say extracting information from Ty Willingham on Savannah's return timetable is like pulling teeth does a disservice to dentists.
"Sometimes those things can change overnight," Willingham told the Seattle Times. "Sometimes they may be forever."
Guess that covers the contingencies. (I would have had so much fun transcribing those press conferences if his time and mine had overlapped at Stanford. If Harbaugh leaves, is it too late to bring him back?)
Savannah led the team with 111 tackles and 12 tackles for loss last year, and his replacement is a former walk-on with seven career tackles, Joshua Gage. So until (and if) Savannah returns, Washington's playing without the heart of its defense.
Washington allowed 5.4 yards per carry and 210 yards per game against last year's Pac-10, dead-last in the league. Plus, three of the starters up front are new, and underclassmen to boot. You can't draw it up worse than this. Unless junior end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who will look like Mean Joe Greene next to his teammates, can clone himself four times over, this is going to be a long, long season for Washington against the run.
The linebackers were the strength of the defense, and they still might be even if Savannah's gone, but that speaks as much to the rest of the defense as to the linebackers. Junior Donald Butler started last year, and sophomore Mason Foster had 25 tackles in 2007, so at least there's experience (though the walk-on Gage weakens that argument). But those three linebackers, all from California, were no better than unranked two-stars out of high school.
In the back, the bad news is obvious: gone is the only multiple-year starter, three-year starting safety Roy Lewis (a San Jose State transfer). Oh, and Washington allowed opponents to complete 64 percent of their passes for 262 yards per game last season. That the other three starters return is therefore somewhat of a mixed bag, but corners Byron Davenport (a UCLA transfer) and Mesphin Forrester (add him to the All-Name team) and free safety Jason Wells are all seniors and can only improve.
Then again, quarterback Jake Locker, he of the 43 percent accuracy in last year's Pac-10, is tearing apart this group in practice – completing at least 65 percent of passes each and every practice thus far, per offensive coordinator Tim Lappano.
Surely Locker's improved somewhat, but his receivers are all inexperienced underclassmen, and, besides, (and the only advice I remember from a year as a Stanford pre-med): when you see hoof prints, don't think of zebras. In other words, the most obvious diagnosis is the correct one, whether you're a doctor or a football analyst. So it's possible that the secondary has drastically improved but no one can see it because Locker's about to come out of nowhere for an all-world season. But the better bet is that, once again, the secondary is going to struggle, as the 65 percent it's allowing to Locker is pretty close to the 64.4 percent it allowed last year. Why expect anything different this season?
Then again, Washington's not going to be scoring as much as last season and their front seven will be no better, so unless teams really have it in for the Huskies and want to run up the score (revenge for Ty's fake punt at Notre Dame, anyone?), the secondary might not be tested all that frequently after halftime anyways.
Don't get me wrong: there's enough parity in college football and enough talent on this team, especially on the offensive side, that Washington could get lucky and stay in bowl contention until late November. At the same time though, this is hands-down the Pac-10's worst defense, and that's as good a reason as any to pick the Huskies to finish last in the conference for the second straight year.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
In a way, Washington is kind of the inverse of Arizona State offensively this year. The Devils return the vast majority of their skill position players, but little on the line, while the Huskies feature the opposite. Combine the two groups (and steal a top-tier running back or two), and watch out USC.
Going four-deep at running back and receiver, the Huskies have 11 underclassmen to just one junior (Hardy). As a team, the Huskies are starting 11 underclassmen, four more than any other Pac-10 team. The nine freshmen in the two-deep is also a conference-high.
Related thought: Willingham's entering his fourth season as head coach, so judging by all the youth on the depth chart and this past season's top-20 recruiting class, recruiting is actually one of the best arguments he can make for keeping his job. Despite the conventional wisdom, he's doing far better at attracting talent to Seattle than his predecessor, Keith Gilbertson.
For the second straight year, Washington has the Pac-10's toughest schedule, if not the toughest slate in the nation. The out-of-conference visitors are BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, the toughest group any BCS school faces. (Oregon State is a close second with Penn State, Hawaii and Utah.) Plus, with the round-robin Pac-10 schedule, that's one extra Pac-10 team Washington has to play instead of Directional State U. The Huskies do have eight home games, but Husky Stadium is nothing special in terms of home-field advantage anymore: Washington has performed nearly identically at home (6-13) and away (5-11) under Willingham.
All told then, if Washington starts 0-3 at Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma, entirely reasonable, and their next two opponents, Stanford and Arizona, start hot, the Huskies could be underdogs in all 12 games this season.
Stanford, meanwhile, has been favored in just 12 games since the start of the Teevens era, or just two games per season! Call LongWinded: turns out we've actually outperformed our talent all these years after all. (Or, if you're an underdog 80 percent of the time and a favorite just 20 percent of the time, it makes sense that you're going to win more as an underdog than you'll lose as a favorite.) This season, I'd say we'll be favored in three games: San Jose State, Washington State and either Arizona or at Washington.
Here's a hidden factor that could tilt the game: the Huskies get a bye between the visits from Oklahoma and Stanford, whereas the Cardinal will be playing their fifth game in five weeks. At least Washington State is the only other Pac-10 team to catch a bye before the Card, and Stanford enjoys a bye before the Washington State game too.
I would be remiss if I didn't end on a positive note, and I would be equally negligent if I didn't mention that last year's 4-9 Husky squad could have quite easily been 9-4. Of their nine losses, a full five came by a touchdown or less, whereas none of their wins did. The 0-5 mark in close games is normally a giant arrow up, for Washington should improve two wins by luck alone.
So I don't think the Huskies are headed for a Stanford 2005-type of Pac-10 last place. But the schedule is an absolute bear, and the Huskies' depth is perilously thin at several positions. Instead then, I think 2008 will be like their season last year, where they'll go about .500 in the bottom half of the Pac-10 and unexpectedly challenge a top team or two (like taking USC to the wire last season). Unfortunately, given the depth of this league, that's not going to be enough to move out of the cellar.
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