No one will be singing ballads about last year's 5-7 record, but it was a definite step forward for the Huskies and a good sign going forward for the Steve Sarkisian era. Now he needs to take another step forward and take this team to a bowl game, though that will be a difficult task given an even nastier schedule in 2010 than they had to deal with in 2009.
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, it was largely the Jake Locker show again, though they were finally able to get some more balance, as freshman running back Chris Polk made a big impact. In 2010, it'll again be a pass-focused offense, but the running game should continue to improve, and they might be able to take a little more pressure off of Locker, a key priority if they want to keep him healthy for another full season.
The rest of the offense returns pretty much intact as well, with most of the line returning, as well as the whole receiving corps. Overall, this won't be the league's best offense, but it probably won't be too far off either.
Defensive improvement was a key aspect of last year's move forward, and if the team is going to make a serious bowl push, then the defense will need to improve again. Fortunately, they have the pieces in place to see further improvement.
Last year, the rush defense was a major weakness, with six out of 12 games yielding at least a 4.8 ypc. That's bad (though not as bad as the abysmal 2008 rush D), and unfortunately, this year is unlikely to see much improvement, as they lost key defenders Donald Butler, EJ Savannah, and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. However, the pass defense should improve nicely, as they return the whole secondary (though the loss of defensive end Nesheim will certainly hurt), including former freshmen Desmon Trufant and Nate Fellner. Last year they gave up over 350 yards through the air three times; if they can cut that to one or two times, that could easily be worth another win.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Two games stand out for me. Oregon St seems like the best chance; it's in Seattle, the Beavers will be coming off a tough trip to Arizona, six straight losses is pretty long of a streak for this series, and as long as the Huskies don't get destroyed on the ground, they should be able to hang with the Beavers. If Locker is on his game, this one is very winnable.
A bigger reach, but still conceivable, is Nebraska. Last year, no one really thought the Huskies had much of a chance in their early season home game against LSU, but they nearly pulled it off. This year, they'll be facing a tougher opponent, but they'll be a better team too. They'll again be underdogs, but it's not a crazy upset possibility.
A really big reach is USC. If (and it's a big if) the secondary struggles this year, Locker could tee off and turn it into a major shootout.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
UCLA. The Bruins have had a lot of success against the Huskies this decade, and this matchup is closer than it looks at first glance. UCLA should have a strong secondary, and has a shot of turning the game into a 13-10 type of contest. With a couple key plays here and there, they could be on the winning side end of that one.
Last year improvement was obvious, given a healthy Jake Locker and the total outlier season that 2008 was. In 2010, though, further improvement will be difficult. This team should be better than they were last year, but their schedule will be tougher, and there's no guarantee that Locker will have another full season of health. If everything breaks right, this could be an 8-9 win team, but if things break wrong, their record could actually take a step back. The guess here is six wins, but I wouldn't be surprised by anything between four and eight wins.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
After the golden age of 2001 – 2003, the Washington State Cougars suffered four straight losing seasons under former coach Bill Doba, and decided to go in a new direction. Two straight 11-loss seasons, it's pretty clear what the "new direction" was… straight down. Over the last two seasons, they've lost thirteen out of eighteen league games by 30+ points, with at least one such loss to every single other Pac-10 program, which is ineptitude on a historic scale. Barring a massive improvement, this program will almost certainly have a new head coach in 2011, who will hopefully be able to start repairing the enormous damage Paul Wulff has inflicted on this program.
Passing should be the biggest strength on this team. Tuel wasn't very good last year, but he wasn't very bad either, and has a reasonable shot of improving a bit. The receiving corps returns pretty much intact, as does the line. If they can air it out, and cut down on the interceptions, they can put some points on the board.
The running game shouldn't be very good, but it could at least improve from last year. James Montgomery is a decent back, and if he can stay healthy this year the run game might have a pulse this time around, like it did last year against Hawaii. It's probably the worst run game in the league, but there might not be as big a gap between them and #9 as there was last year.
The good news here is that the defensive line should improve by a good amount, returning starters in all four positions. Unfortunately, the linebacker corps will be depleted, and after last year's showing, where they were shredded on the ground almost every week (only against SMU did they give up less than 5.0 ypc), with really bad showings against Cal (7.9 ypc) and Oregon St (7.3 ypc), it's almost impossible not to see the run D as a massive weakness again in 2010.
Pass defense, however, could get a bit better, given the return of both defensive ends and some experience in the secondary. Against great passing attacks they'll be weak, but they could have some success against some of the shakier quarterbacks they'll face.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
At this point, pretty much any win other than Montana State would be "huge". That said, there are a couple of mildly interesting games on the schedule. In week one, they travel to Oklahoma State, who has a huge rebuilding job on their hands. In week three, they travel to an SMU team that they beat last year. On November 6th, they get a cold-weather home game against a Cal team that frequently implodes on the road. And, of course, they get the Apple Cup at home. I wouldn't pick upsets in any specific one of these, but they've got a shot at pulling off at least one somewhere along the way.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
The only one that could possibly qualify would be Montana St, and I'm pretty sure they won't be bad enough to blow that one.
After two straight abysmal seasons, there's little reason to think year three of the Wulff era will be much better. They should beat Montana St, and I'd guess they pull off one more somewhere along the way, just because they'll have at least a small chance in a bunch of games. But two wins shouldn't be enough to save Wulff's job. Perhaps the next guy can fix the mess Wulff created here.
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