Well, last year certainly didn't go very well, with the Huskies crashing and burning on their way to a 0-12 record and a new head coach. Now Steve Sarkisian needs to find a way to pick up the pieces and return this team to respectability. The 2009 schedule certainly does him no favors, but this team may actually be good enough to make some noise and score a big upset somewhere along the way.
In 2007 this was the Jake Locker show. In 2008 this was the Jake Locker show until he got hurt, and then it was basically the non-show. In 2009 Locker returns, but the offense has to finally become more than just him running the ball. An experienced group of receivers is a very good start, as is an offensive line that has a chance of being a bit better, despite a few personnel losses.
The main question, though, is whether they can put together a non-Locker running game, something they've really struggled with of late. They have a heralded recruit in Chris Polk, and they've got a bunch of guys who've run the ball last year, though none of them stood out. If Polk can make a difference right away, or if someone else can make a big improvement, this offense can finally take some of the pressure off of Locker. If not, though, it's going to be all on him again, and once again there'll be a very real risk of him taking too many chances and getting himself hurt again.
If this team is going to improve, the defense will have to lead the charge and become a lot better than last year's disaster, when they averaged 38.6 points given up per game and only once (against Wazzu) gave up less than 20 points. Fortunately, they have the pieces in place to make a big move forward.
Last year, anyone with half a pulse in the running game could run at will on this defense, with 11 out of 12 games yielding over a 4.5 ypc. That's flat-out awful, but this year ought to be much better. Linebacker EJ Savannah returns, and as long as he hasn't regressed during his year away from the team he should be the best player on the defense, and he'll be joined by another good linebacker in Mason Foster (Honorable Mention Pac-10 last year), plus an experienced inside linebacker in Donald Butler, and a couple of tackles who've seen plenty of action. There's not enough here to think that they'll suddenly become a very good run defense, but they definitely ought to become decent.
Pass defense will be tougher, but should still improve. They return 1st team Pac-10 DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who had a great 2008 and should be even better this year. The secondary won't be great, but they have a number of potential contributors, and if they can avoid the injury bug (a big problem the last two seasons), they could surprise.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Two games stand out for me. Oregon seems like the best chance; it's a rivalry game, the Huskies have lost five straight (around when the mental edge starts to swing to the losing team – this is definitely the game U-Dub has circled on their calendar and it's definitely not the game the Ducks have circled), and they may have a linebacker corps good enough to stall the Duck offense. Throw in a crowd that'll be in a frenzy for the game, and it's surprisingly easy to see an upset here.
The second game is LSU. It's a season-opener, cross-country trip, and those can often be difficult to win (just ask Tennessee, who's played three straight of those, and in each one the home team has won, twice as an underdog). Moreover, LSU simply wasn't a very good team last year, with five losses (three of them blowouts). If they're once again a legitimate top ten team, they could roll, but if they still have the same issues as last year (far from certain but still possible), then this could easily be a big week one upset.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
They won't be bad enough to lose to Idaho, so that only leaves Wazzu. And the Cougars definitely have a shot, as over the past few years they've finally put together some success in this rivalry after decades of near-constant futility. It would be surprising to see a Cougar win in Seattle, but if Locker goes down again, or if the Cougars manage to substantially improve from where they were last year, it could happen.
This should definitely be one of the most improved teams in the country, but when you're coming off an 0-12 campaign, that's a pretty backhanded compliment. Still, this has all the makings of a decent team. Definitely lower-division in the Pac-10, and the non-conference slate is just too hard to see .500 as a serious possibility, but four or five wins is definitely doable, and if they catch a bunch of breaks (especially if LSU and/or Notre Dame are much worse than expected), six wins isn't completely crazy. The guess here is four wins, with a shot at bumping it up to five.
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 five straight seasons since their last bowl berth, and after the atrocious showing last year, there's little reason to believe it won't become six straight.
Almost every year, Washington State is a passing team. However, this year things might be different in Pullman. They return a good back in Dwight Tardy, they picked up a good back in Cal transfer James Montgomery, and the offensive line should take a big step forward from last year, with a good amount of returning experience, especially in the person of Center Kenny Alfred, HM Pac-10 last year. Obviously this won't be a great running game, but they could be surprisingly decent on the ground after basically an entire decade (other than 2005) of doing not much of anything.
The passing game probably won't be very good, but it should still be better than last year, when they threw 21 interceptions without getting much in the way of yardage, especially if you back out the stats they put together against AA Portland St. Both Kevin Lopina and Marshall Lobbestael return, and one of them ought to improve, at least enough not to do THAT again. Unfortunately, receiver Brandon Gibson is gone, but they return a bunch of guys with some experience, and the hope is that one or two of them will be able to become a solid contributor. Until we see otherwise, the passing game will remain a weakness, but it should at least not completely sink the team like it did at times last year.
The good news here is that the running defense ought to improve. Then again, after last year's showing, where they were shredded on the ground almost every week, with truly awful showings against Cal (9.8 ypc) and Baylor (10.1 ypc), it's almost impossible not to. One bright spot is linebackers Louis Bland, who was 3rd team frosh AA last year, and could become a key defensive leader if he continues to improve. Andy Mattingly is another linebacker with experience, and they have a couple tackles who might be better than what they had to work with last year.
Pass defense, however, looks like it'll be just as bad as last year, and possibly even worse after losing both projected starting corners in Devin Giles and Romeo Pellum. They've struggled to create much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and with what looks like a very green secondary, that's very bad news against anyone who's any good at throwing the ball.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
At this point, pretty much any win would be "huge". That said, there are a couple of interesting games on the schedule. In week one, they host Stanford, who probably won't have the passing game to take advantage of the Cougar secondary, so with a number of breaks, an upset might be possible. In early October, they have a homecoming game against ASU, who tends to struggle on the road. Another game that stands out a bit is November 14th against UCLA; the Bruins tend to struggle a lot on the road, and a late-season, cold-weather, lousy weather game could be just what the doctor ordered, especially if the weather shuts down the passing game.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
The only one that could possibly qualify would be SMU, and even there I'm not sure it'd be a huge upset.
The good news for the Cougars is that a lot of teams in the Pac-10 have questions, which means that they have a chance of escaping the cellar. If Lockers gets hurt again, if another team gets devastated by injuries, or if something weird happens to another Pac-10 squad, the Cougars could conceivably jump up to 9th place. That said, this still looks like the weakest team in the league, which means that they're still the favorite to finish last. An 0-12 run is possible, but they'll probably pick up a couple, at least one during the Hawaii-SMU stretch, and probably one Pac-10 game. They're probably the worst team in the league, but it might not be by a huge margin, which means they've got a decent shot of spring an upset at some point.
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