I’ve been asked a few times, mostly during out-of-town radio interviews, to gauge the expectations of Huskies fans heading into coach Chris Petersen’s inaugural season as coach.
And it seems to me the answer to that question is roughly this: eight victories or fewer would probably be viewed as a disappointment (especially with a 13-game schedule); nine wins feels like the baseline for what could be reasonably termed acceptable; and 10 wins or more would probably be considered a success, depending on how the Huskies fare in their bowl game (and depending against whom those victories are achieved).
So as I sit down to write my annual season prediction post, I guess it’s those latter two groups between which I’ve been trying to decide – does this feel like a team whose ceiling is somewhere around 9-4, given the questions at quarterback, tailback and the back end of the secondary? Or is the front seven of the defense so good, the young talent at those aforementioned positions skilled enough already, and the offensive line so experienced that a double-digit win total should be expected?
To be sure, anything less than a 4-0 start to the season will be viewed as a failure, though I’d submit the Huskies’ game against Eastern Washington on Sept. 6 could be a little tougher than many assume, and I realize that’s not exactly an original thought; EWU is ranked No. 1 in the FCS for a reason, and quarterback Vernon Adams has some legitimate weapons at receiver and running back to distribute the ball to.
That said, 4-0 is the expectation, which would set up a pretty big matchup with reigning Pac-12 champion Stanford on Sept. 27 at Husky Stadium. Win that game, and the Huskies would be 5-0 and likely ranked somewhere in the top 15 heading into their bye week, with a game at California after that in which UW will likely be heavily favored. So, a month out, Stanford really feels like the turning point.
With that said, here’s how I would break down the schedule, in terms of expectations.
Must win: Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois, Georgia State, California, Colorado
Should be expected to win, but could lose without embarrassing themselves: Arizona, Oregon State, Washington State
Could lose them all, but winning two would be acceptable: Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA
It helps that UW gets three of the four teams in that last group at home, and the Huskies’ first four games against seemingly sub-par opponents could really be key in the development of Jeff Lindquist, Cyler Miles and/or Troy Williams. If the Huskies come out of that first stretch feeling good about going forward with one of those guys as their starter, they could be in pretty good shape to take on the gauntlet that remains.
If not … they could have a pretty tough time against high-powered offenses like Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA that are going to put a lot of pressure on the Huskies’ defense, which also makes it important for those young guys in the secondary to grow up in a hurry over the season’s first month.
So, in the end, here’s my prediction for how things will shake out:
— The Huskies will beat each of the teams in the above “must win” category, though a sneaking suspicion exists that games at Colorado and California will be tougher than they appear on paper.
— They won’t beat all three of the teams in that second group, but they should beat two (and I have reservations about predicting UW victories in both Tucson and Pullman in the same season).
— They’ll beat two of the teams in that final group – most likely Stanford and ASU – though if the Sun Devils’ defense can reload after losing nine starters, that turns into a tougher proposition.
Do the math, and that equals a season prediction of 10-3 overall, with a 6-3 record in the Pac-12, which would probably have the Huskies right around third in the Pac-12 North, with an outside shot at second place. That’s based on the belief that either Lindquist will hold onto the starting job, or if he doesn’t, it will be because Petersen feels Miles really does make the offense that much better. Replacing Bishop Sankey is obviously a big ask, but Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman have shown enough promise to think that could be a pretty solid 1-2 combination at running back (assuming Washington’s fumble troubles are behind him), and if the Huskies can run the ball effectively, that obviously takes a lot of pressure off whoever winds up under center, and makes breaking in a new quarterback that much easier.
Put all that together with what could be the Huskies’ best defensive front seven in 15-20 years, and it just seems like considerable progress is possible in Petersen’s first year, assuming all key participants stay healthy and the coaching transition goes as smoothly as players and coaches have all said it is so far.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple