When a college team hits rock bottom, as the Huskies did following their 0-12 season in 2008, the best case scenario is to re-build and contend for the conference within 3 years. For the Huskies to accomplish this lofty goal, the process looks something like this:
Step 1, off season—Fire coach, hire new one that brings fresh approach. Begin a culture change by recruiting differently, practicing differently, thinking differently.
Step 2, in season—Back up the talk by winning a few games in year 1.
Step 3, off season—With systems in-place, raise the bar and expect more from returning players in the off-season. Focus the recruiting on keeping in-state kids at home.
Step 4, in season—Challenge for a .500 season and possibly a bowl game in year 2.
Step 5, off season—Get bigger, stronger, faster. Win some recruiting battles and sign a blue chip or two.
Step 6, in season—Compete for a winning season and possibly a conference championship.
In the Sarkisian era, Washington is entering Step 4 of this process, and thus far the first 3 steps are checked off with an A+ grade. A .500 season and possibly a bowl game would be right on track to accomplish the 3 year turnaround. But anyone who follows this team knows the hype and expectations are higher than just 6-6 this year. The X factor is, of course, the return of Jake Locker. In fact, there may as well be an asterisk under step 3 that says, “If Locker returns, skip steps 4 and 5, and move onto 6. But is conference contending hype reasonable at this point for the Huskies? Could Jake conceivably slash a year off what is already an aggressive 3 year re-build process from winless to champs? Let’s breakdown just how realistic a Rose Bowl season could be by forecasting 5 assumptions, and ranking the probability of each on a scale of 1-10.
The Pac-10 is a 10 team division, of which 4 teams can already be written off—Washington State, Arizona State, USC and UCLA will not be playing in the Rose Bowl on 1/1/11. This is not a fact, but realistically, 3 of these teams are not set up to win the Pac-10 this year, and USC is not eligible for a bowl game. Under this assumption, this is really a 6 team race, and UW is in the thick of it.
Reviewing the past 8 seasons, only twice has the Pac-10 champ gone undefeated in conference play (both times USC did it). 4 times the champ lost just 1 conference game, and twice, the champion suffered 2 losses. This year is as wide open as any of the previous 8 years, especially with USC out of the race, so my assumption is the conference champion will have 2 losses.
Coach Sark has already said the Huskies will go undefeated at home this year, so the assumption is that Washington will record conference wins against Arizona State, Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA. Wahoo!
Of the contending competition, the Huskies are on the road against Arizona, Oregon, and Cal. UW also visits Washington State and USC this year, neither of whom factor into the conference race, but a loss to either counts the same. Assuming UW wins the Apple Cup (no I’m not counting this as a separate assumption), the road schedule boils down to 4 games, of which the Huskies had better win at least 2 if they want to be in Pasadena in January. Let’s assume the Dawgs claw out 2 wins in these games, and we’ll move on to the final assumption.
Given the assumptions I’ve made, a 2 loss Washington team will probably have company atop the conference. Let’s assume Oregon and/or Oregon State have 2 losses as well. It is impossible to know how these teams will have accrued 2 losses, and what tie-breakers may facture in at this point, but one thing we do know is that Oregon or Oregon State will play each other in the Civil War, and I would not be surprised if this game has major implications for the Huskies, especially if 2 losses is the magic number that I’m assuming it will be. At this point, Washington may just be a team of destiny, so let’s assume the tie-breakers favor UW, and that the Ducks, who only needed a Civil War win to be conference champs stumbled in Corvallis. How sweet it would be.
By making just 5 fairly reasonable assumptions, the Huskies have landed in Pasadena. The conventional re-build model suggests a 6-6 season is nice progress in year 2, but the moment Locker announced his return, this season became un-conventional. With so many unknowns in this conference, the Locker led Huskies have as good a shot as any. So throw the 7-8 win goal out the window, and go all in for this team. Who knows, maybe Jake Locker’s last game will be in Pasadena.