Sure, I may be an eternal optimist, or perhaps a homer is more apt. But if that's the case, then this season is my personal Iliad. Let me refrain, we may not exact revenge on the Trojans yet, but six wins is certainly plausible. The Huskies may be young, but they also haven't had this much talent since 2000. Think about it, Washington lost five games by seven points or less last season. They are more talented this season and the Pac-10 is going to take a step backwards. U-Dub will win six games! If you have calmed your laughter, please read ahead for a scientific look at how.
This game is huge and will start the Husky's bowl run. The numbers don't lie and U-Dub is 1-0 against Mountain West teams at home since 2002 with a huge 38-7 win over powerhouse Wyoming! Sure they are 0-1 on the road in that same span with a heartbreaking 17-20 loss against Air Force in 2005, but what kind of homer would I be to dwell on that? Remember the 2007 Boise State team that began the year ranked No. 24 in the nation? The same team that came to Husky stadium and got stomped 24-10? Well this will be Boise Sate 2.0. Before you start telling me how well BYU did against Pac-10 teams last season, look closer. They beat an Arizona team in week-one who had not yet learned their pass crazy offense and BYU still only managed 20 points against the Wildcat meager defense. They were beaten easily by UCLA when the Bruins actually had something to play for and only beat them by one-point when the Bruins had packed it in and called it quits for 2007. The Cougars lost eight starters on defense, a defense that gave up 24 points to New Mexico, 22 points to TCU and 27 points to San Diego State last season. They also just lost their starting center Tom Sorensen for 4-6 weeks.
Their coach has swagger and they are finally recruiting Pac-10 talent, but none of that is going to help them this season. It's not very often that returning most of your starters is a bad thing; well you're looking at it with the Cardinals. Besides, nothing gets Willingham more fired up then seeing his old mascot, that darn tree dancing around the sidelines.
Arizona will again toss the ball all over the field as if "running back" is a figment of their imagination. The only problem, the Wildcats lost eight starters from a defense that gave up over 25 points per game last season. Gone is Thorp award winner Antoine Carson and the Pac-10's leading tackler Spencer Larsen. Besides, they won't know what hit them after playing a cream puff non-conference schedule against Idaho, Toledo and New Mexico leading up to UCLA and Washington.
Year in and year out the Beavers overachieve and even I admire them for that. But come on, how much longer can Junior College transfers keep them competitive? Besides, the schools greatest kicker Alexis Serna, and one of the most productive running backs in the Pac-10 last season in Yvenson Bernard are both gone. Last season's Beavers won with defense and they lost seven starters on that side of the ball. Can Sammie Stroughter win it alone? NO!
They lost to Navy, won only three games last season and are rebuilding just like the Dawgs. They return a ton of depth including four starters from their offensive line, but that same line gave up an unimaginable 58 sacks and 112 tackles for loss. They will only be a year older, not completely different people. Even if they improve what should we expect, 48 sacks and 100 tackles for loss? No one knows how good Jimmy Clausen can be, even Payton Manning can't be productive from his back. I just don't see that changing next season. Talk to me in 2009 about Notre Dame returning to the glory days.
In 107 years the Cougars have won back-to-back Apple Cups only seven times - I like those odds. The Cougars defense is absolutely decimated and they will try and out score their opponents with a stud wide receiver and a couple of quality running backs. But who is going to run Paul Wulff's spread offense? Besides, the Huskies could come into this game with five wins and Willingham will be playing for his job!
The over-under on wins for the 2008 seasons is floating at about the bowl-eligibility mark for the Washington Huskies. While I don't think bowl-eligibility is a long shot for this up-and-coming team, I put my money on the under – the Huskies top out at five wins and here is why:
Dr. Jason Seaver was a therapist on the hit 80s sit-com, and the Huskies will need a good sports psychologist on hand this season to help the players "play older," as Tyrone Willingham said when camp started. I am not suggesting the Huskies defense will be anywhere near as bad as it was last season, but it still needs time to develop.
The defensive line is going to go through some growing pains, even with Daniel Te'o-Nesheim's experience and all that potential (see Cameron Elisara, Darrion Jones, Alameda Ta'amu, DeShon Matthews.) These guys are going to meet some of the best offensive lines this side of the Mississippi in their first three games. The challenge will be daunting and they will mess up – simple as that.
Some of those highly-touted – but young – receivers are going to line up wrong and drop key passes before they shine. And they will shine, but not before they screw up first.
Even the running backs will fumble before they move forward.
Potential needs time to develop. It is there and it will develop, but growing pains against the nation's toughest schedule means one thing – some foul-ups at inopportune times. That translates to an "L" where they should have been a "W."
SO MUCH ON THE QUARTERBACK
There is no one better to put the weight of the program on than quarterback Jake Locker. Two years ago, Isaiah Stanback was accounting for 68 percent of the Huskies' total offense heading into the seventh game of the season – when he injured his foot and determined out for the season. The season was lost when Stanback went down and a season that seemed primed for a bowl berth went down with him.
Locker is capable of – and will be counted on for – the same kind of production.
Is that fair? Is it healthy for him (physically) and the rest of the team (mentally)?
No one wants to find out the answers to those questions.
THE SCHEDULE, WILLINGHAM SITUATION
I have gone on record stating the Huskies will lose their first three games. I believe that not because of a perceived lack of talent or coaching ability, but because of those growing pains. I don't think many pups cut their teeth at Autzen Stadium. I'd be surprised if the Huskies can get enough pressure on Max Hall to keep BYU down (though an upset wouldn't be that off the wall here.) I already have Oklahoma penciled in as a loss. But – and that is a very big but indeed (insert immature giggle here) – the next four games are winnable against Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State and Notre Dame. That would mean the Huskies would need to win just two of their final five games to be bowl eligible and dash my prediction.
The Huskies, however, aren't going to win those four games because the already-divided fan base is going to go bonkers with an 0-3 start. The pitch of unreasonable fans' cries is going to be ear-shattering and it is going to affect – and divide – the team despite the coaching staff's best efforts.
This dire forecast likely means Willingham doesn't return for the 2009 season and the program starts over – again – with a new staff. Unless president Mark Emmert hires a half-wit, the new head coach will field a winning team in '09 because those growing pains will already have been sustained, Locker's help will be more polished and Willingham will have filled the hole left by the Neuheisel-Gilbertson debacles. The new coach starts on level ground with a very-talented team.