A 3-8 Season Waiting to Happen?

It's been nearly 30 years since this much uncertainty surrounds the University of Washington football team as a season approaches. Nearly all of the stars of last season's .500 team are gone, replaced by large question marks at quarterback, on both lines, and at linebacker and receiver, including tight end.

And head coach. It is generally agreed that Keith Gilbertson must produce at least seven victories (including a bowl game) to ensure he sees the third year of his contract, although a new athletic director, whenever that hire is made, might propose a different standard. There's also a new president who has promised to take an active role in the UW's athletic department.

In addition, almost all of the players who will run out of the tunnel Sept. 5, including likely every starter and nearly every key reserve, will have been brought into the program by a much reviled former coach. Just as Rick Neuheisel coached Jim Lambright's recruits to a Rose Bowl victory, Keith Gilbertson's job depends on getting Neuheisel's to improve rapidly in many key positions.

In the quarterback competition -- which for the first time in 20 years (Hugh Millen, Paul Sicuro, Chris Chandler in 1984) is a three-way battle -- only one of the prospects has had significant playing time, and that was at receiver. Another played one half and did quite well. But many experts are focusing on the third candidate, a redshirt freshman.

In addition, the QB evaluation in fall camp may be compromised by a lack of healthy offensive linemen and experienced receivers, only one of whom is an upper-classman. Nearly all the tight ends are injured or lack experience.

As to the injury-plagued, graduation-depleted lines, Don James thought it was difficult to have a successful season when both have to be rebuilt, a task facing Gilbertson this year. Even the team's strengths -- running backs and the secondary -- could be negated by poor line play that doesn't open holes and applies little pressure upfield.

The team not only must prove itself, it has to try to overcome the stigma of back-to-back mediocre (7-6, 6-6) seasons, breaking away from the error-filled inconsistency that featured the play of their former upper classmen. And this must be achieved in front of fans who believe a top 20 season is their birthright (even though the UW has finished a season ranked in the top 20 only four times in the past 11 years.)

How will it affect new and/or unproven starters if they fall behind Fresno State because of mistakes common to inexperienced players and are booed heartily by a crowd tired of screw-ups at the largest university in the Northwest?

Not since 1975, Don James' first year, have the Huskies gone into a season with so much uncertainty following two mediocre to bad years (2-9, 5-6). That team wound up 6-5, including a surprising 5-2 in the conference, but had a ton of seniors to lead the way. The 2004 Huskies aren't nearly as experienced, nor is their coach considered to be James' peer.

There is another similarity between 1975 and 2004 -- in both years, there were/are three QBs vying for the starting job. In 1975, Chris Rowland, who had a funky delivery, was the most experienced QB and the best passer; Cliff McBride was easily the best runner of the three, had a great arm, but struggled with inaccuracy; and Moon was seen as the best combination passer/runner. If that sounds like the three battling for the job this year, perhaps that's why some experts, notably the esteemed Man of Dawg, project a certain redshirt freshman as the starter on Sept. 5.

The 2004 season shapes up less like 1975 than another year loaded with uncertainty, including who would replace a quarterback who broke nearly all of the school's passing records. That year was 1973, which ended 2-9 without a win in conference play.

The Huskies 2-9!? No. But 3-8 is a strong possibility in a much improved Pac-10 where there aren't any slam-dunks for the UW. Only San Jose State is a guaranteed vic . . . , uh, scratch that after the el foldo against Nevada last year. So tack it up there on the bulletin board, UW in '04, 3-8, no better than ninth in the Pac-10.

Unless . . .

The above analysis intentionally omitted names of the '04 players -- no mention of the potential on this team, the returning starters, the budding stars, the much anticipated recruiting class. Therein lies the hope, actually expectation, of Dawg fans that this team won't break the UW's streak of non-losing seasons dating back almost the last time a Husky team had this many question marks.

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