The Washington Huskies are an interesting team to try and predict. On the one hand, this team played very competitively against pretty much everyone on their schedule, challenging Ohio St for a half, barely losing to USC and Hawaii, and playing Oregon a lot closer than the score indicated. They scored notable wins against Boise and Cal, and they lost an amazing five games by 7 points or less, compared to zero such wins, which is usually a great sign of impending improvement.
But on the other hand, this was still a 4-9 team that relied almost entirely on just one player (QB Jake Locker) for its offensive output. Obviously, there’s potential here, but there’s still a lot of work to be done for this team to find a way to make a bowl and save beleaguered head coach Ty Willingham’s job.
In 2007 this was the Jake Locker show. In 2008… it looks like more of the same. The Huskies are certainly trying to find a running back to take the load off of Locker, but right now it’s tough to say that they’ll succeed. And considering that Locker has already had injury issues in the past, that’s bad news until proven otherwise.
Fortunately, the offensive line returns largely intact, especially given the news that center Juan Garcia is likely to be back from injury some point in the first few weeks of the season. This isn’t a star O-line, but an extra year of experience should certainly herald improvement from a unit that already did a good job paving the way for a lot of rushing yards from Locker and departed running back Louis Rankin.
The receiver corps is almost entirely gone, but that may not be such a bad thing for a unit that just didn’t do very much for the past couple years. There’s certainly a lot of work to be done to get them going, but this was already a weakness, and is unlikely to get much worse thanks to some young talent coming up through the system.
The Husky defense, which struggled a fair amount in 2007, has to replace a number of key parts, especially linebacker EJ Savannah, whose yearlong suspension will really hurt this team.
The defensive line is the big question mark for the Huskies, as they lose pretty much everyone from that unit, although Te’o-Neshim does return, along with his 8.5 sacks, which certainly helps.
The strength of the Husky defense looks to be the back seven, led by cornerback Meshpin Forrester, who has been a key contributor in the secondary. It’s far from a dominant defense, but it’s better than the statistics might indicate, especially when you consider who those statistics came against (U-Dub’s nonconference schedule last year included Boise, Ohio St and Hawaii, one of the nastiest sets in the nation).
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
That week one game at Autzen looks mighty tempting. It’s a rivalry game, and the Ducks still need to break in some key players (and look to be missing QB Nate Costa), which means there’s definitely a chance. However, reports that indicate Locker won’t be 100% (and might not play) scare me off of that one a bit. Another possibility would be one week later against BYU, a team that has tended to struggle on the road (they’ve lost at least five straight road openers), and is bringing in an almost entirely new set of defensive starters, which means that the Huskies could certainly turn the game into a shootout and find a way to come out on top.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
I’m not sure that people would call it an upset today, but by the time the game rolls around, UCLA could very well count as an upset. Even though it’s in Seattle, it’s not a great matchup for Washington, as the Bruins should be pretty decent defending the run, and by then they could very well have figured things out on offense. A late season trip to Pullman for the annual Apple Cup also looms as a challenge, now that the Cougars have shown that they are capable of winning this series against decent Husky squads.
Fair or not, Ty Willingham probably needs a bowl berth to save his job. Unfortunately, the schedule does this team no favors, as they have three nasty non-conference games against BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Even if they find a way to do well in those games, there are going to be too many challenges in the league schedule to believe that they’ll be able to make the magic number of six wins. I do think they’ll make it interesting for a while, but they’ll fall short, unless the defense steps up and Locker can stay healthy for the whole season (even then it’s far from a guarantee). That means that one of the youngest teams in the country will probably be breaking in a new head coach in 2009.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
After the golden age of 2001 – 2003, the last few years have not been good to the Washington State Cougars, as they’re now on four straight seasons since their last bowl berth. Unfortunately, it looks like they’re going to make it five, as they just don’t seem to stack up well against the rest of the league.
Washington State is a passing team. There are some years when they run it more, but their offense has tended to be defined by the pass, especially the last two years with quarterback Alex Brink leading the offense. Unfortunately, now that he’s gone it’ll be tough to replicate the same kind of production, especially with a depleted receiving corps. Gary Rogers is a senior, so he’s had plenty of time to learn the system, and shouldn’t be bad, but he’s not going to be able to carry the team like Brink did at times.
The running game should improve, as Dwight Tardy returns and the line is largely intact. While very inconsistent, the ground game did show signs of life from time to time, and ought to at least get to the point where it’ll be consistently decent.
The good news is that almost everybody returns on the Cougar D. The bad news, however, is that they lose their best player in Husain Abdullah, as well as the fact that this unit simply was pretty bad in 2007. What’s truly remarkable about their performance is that almost every opponent they faced was able to roll up major yards and points; only against UCLA did they hold an opponent to single digits; half of the time they gave up more than 30 points. So while things should get better, this is still not one of the better defenses in the league.
The pass defense looks to be decent, as they return a good pass rusher in Andy Mattingly, as well as both of their starting corners. They’ll certainly miss Abdullah in the secondary, but they should still be all right. The run defense should also be decent, as they return their whole linebacking corps, and all three starters will be experienced seniors. The tackles are rebuilding a bit, but the LB’s should still be able to carry the weight.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
This is a team that is pretty well set in terms of how they’re going to be; they really shouldn’t need time to gel. In other words, if they’re going to pull off a shocker, it’s probably going to be early. Fortunately, they’ll have two big chances in September against a pair of Pac-10 teams that will be busy looking forward to bigger games in Cal (@ Maryland the next week) and Oregon (@ USC the next week). And considering that both of those teams will need time to gel, there’s a very real chance of a Cougar upset in either one of those games.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Baylor, maybe? Other than Portland, there just isn’t anything which would count as a noteworthy upset.
The good news for the Cougars is that a lot of teams in the Pac-10 have major questions, which means that they have a good chance of escaping the cellar. That said, this still looks like the weakest team in the league, which means that they’re still the favorite to finish last, especially with most of their winnable games on the road. They’ll definitely be feisty, and they can certainly catch one of the big names napping, but this looks like a building season for Wulff. Between a coaching transition and a lack of impact players, repeating last year’s record would be an achievement. More likely, 5-7 turns into anywhere between 5-8 and 3-10.
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