With this in mind, can Coach Steve Sarkisian return the Huskies to a bowl game? Can the Huskies go to back-to-back post season contests, or is that asking too much? I have a hard time wrestling with that question, and when you think about it, that is really saying something.
The fact that I can even think this way in just Sarkisian's third year with the program tells me that Washington has the right guy with the whistle around his neck. And the more I think about it, the more I trust this coach to deliver on back-to-back bowl game appearances.
Sure, the Huskies are losing Jake Locker. Yes, it's true that the offensive line is going to have a newish look to it. And I'd be lying if I said that there is an equivalent replacement waiting in the wings to take Mason Foster's rather large void in the defense that now exists.
So why am I allowing myself to think that Washington will once again play after their Pac-12 season is complete?
I am not one of those that say this just because "we are Washington." I never bought into the entitlement argument. I always felt no matter who you are, you earn respect and rewards through performance, not name. I also am not one to blame the fans for losses because they were willing to tolerate some losses in the name of the improving bigger picture that is being pursued. Somehow, this is sometimes equated to, "lowering expectations." These arguments crack me up, to be honest with you. Those debate points are way too simple and reek of self importance.
No. The reason why I expect Washington to once again play in a bowl game is because Steve Sarkisian has accomplished two of his most important goals already, and is on the way to getting number three under his belt.
Sark has changed the culture of Washington football. The losing that was so prevalent is no longer the norm. It is no longer expected that when the Huskies get behind, or if there is a close game in the fourth quarter, somehow the guys in purple will find a way to lose. It had been that way since Keith Gilbertson was inserted as the manager of the team. When things started going downhill during a game, you could watch Gilby's head drop and his hands clasp his knees as he stared at the ground. That rubbed off on his team and very quickly became part of the football landscape at Washington
Under Willingham the losing was expected because, frankly, the coach placed his priorities on trying to control stuff that neither made any sense nor had anything to do with winning football games. So you had losing still in the heads of players, and now it combined with the fun being sucked out of the game.
Sark had to erase all of this. He had to purge it. He had to take the program by the hand when it had doubts, and had to take it by the neck when it needed direction and tough love.
Mission accomplished. Both the expectation of winning and the fun element of the program has been restored.
The third thing that Sarkisian had to do was upgrade the talent. There were some very talented players when he got here, but not enough of them in the depths. This is being achieved through recruiting, but the results really aren't totally in yet. This is probably the year when Husky fans will get to see just how their coach has done in talent evaluation and development, because there will be some new kids in very important positions.
Husky fans will get to see how the offense will work with either Keith Price or Nick Montana at the helm behind center. Price is a guy that Sarkisian didn't recruit a great deal, but he thought enough of him to keep him in the fold for his first class. Montana is a guy that Sark went out, hunted, and closed. For that reason, I believe that he will be the guy when the first game on the schedule against Eastern Washington comes around.
Montana has a strong arm and is very intelligent. I believe that by fall camp he will be the guy.
Along the offensive line, several new names are in that mix. Ben Riva, Micah Hatchie, and Colin Tanigawa, are all kids that will very likely see the field this fall in the trenches. Hatchie was considered one of the top linemen in Hawaii as a prep player and he is not disappointing anyone based on how quickly he has moved up the depth chart. He can play both tackle positions. Tanigawa will play one of the guard positions and is impressing coaches with his work. The surprise has been Riva, who looks fantastic and is well ahead of projections on his development.
Two others from that same recruiting class, Erik Koehler and Colin Porter, cracked the depth last year and although they appeared overmatched at times, by the end of the season they were clicking well. A lot will be expected from those two this year.
That offensive line will be crucial in defining whether or not the Huskies have success, as they will be opening holes for Chris Polk and keeping throwing lanes open and buying time for young Montana to do his thing from the pocket.
At tight end, I expect true freshman Austin Seferian-Jenkins to have a specific offensive package inserted that he can grasp and succeed in. He brings skills to that position that just weren't on the roster last year. It is great that he is getting spring reps, as it will further prepare him for making an immediate impact this fall.
On defense, the key will be how well the new kids integrate with Cort Dennison at linebacker. Jonathan Timu, Princeton Fuimaono, and Garret Gililand will all compete for the two linebacking jobs that are up for grabs. Victor Burnett should also make his debut this year.
As you can see, the Sarkisian guys will play a key role in whether or not the Dawgs can get to a bowl game again. I believe that they will do the job. All are very talented and have that football player look and feel. They aren't just good athletes – they are good football players that also happen to be very athletic.
When you look at the Husky schedule, I see at least seven wins if the talent above is developed and executes like I think it will. Below is the schedule and a preliminary quick preview of what could happen:
1) Eastern: Husky win.
2) Hawaii: Husky win.
3) @ Nebraska: Nebraska wins this one. Huskies won't be ready to win a game of this caliber just yet. Wait until Montana is a little more seasoned.
4) Cal: Husky win. Could go either way, but playing at home will make a difference in the Pac-12 opener.
5) @ Utah: Husky win. Montana's first road win.
6) Colorado: Husky win.
7) Stanford: Despite a coaching change, I can't see the Huskies defeating the Andrew Luck led Cardinal on the road. Stanford win.
8) Arizona: Toss up. This is the game I'm not ready to call just yet. In Seattle, I like Washington's chances.
9) Oregon: Loss. The Ducks have things rolling right now and they are still going to be the program to beat next year.
10) @ USC: Husky loss. No way USC loses to Washington three times in a row, is there?
11) @ Oregon State: I think this is the key to the season. Washington gets a road win in Corvallis.
12) Apple Cup: Husky win.
That equates to either 7-5 or 8-4. It's hard for me to fathom expecting eight wins from the team that has played in one bowl game in the last decade, but there you go. This spring, that should be the goal for this program.
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