If the Pacific 10 conference had added Utah and Colorado even a few years ago and split into two divisions as it is doing starting this fall, then the South would have seemed the much tougher division with Utah, Southern Cal and to a lesser extent even Arizona.
But there’s little question that the North should be the stronger division this season with powerhouse Oregon and a resurgent Stanford program with the nation’s best quarterback in Andrew Luck having returned to school.
So it’s going to be a tough road for the University of Washington to reach the first Pac-12 Championship Game. The Huskies were a bit disappointing last season. They were expected to be a Pac-10 sleeper with QB Jake Locker, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, turning down NFL millions to return to school, but Locker was both hurt and ineffective at times and the school finished 7-6 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-10 (tied for third).
Steve Sarkisian is in his third season at UW after bailing ship at just the right time at Southern Cal. Locker returned to school, passing up possibly the No. 1 spot in the 2010 NFL Draft, to work especially with Sarkisian, who is considered somewhat of a quarterback guru.
Sarkisian does have this program on the rise, it appears. Remember, this school was a 0-12 laughingstock before Sarkisian arrived. He has led the Huskies to a 5-7 record and then those seven wins last year.
The 2011 Huskies were peaking at the end of the year, winning their final three games—including two on the road—to get bowl eligible. And then UW beat No. 18 Nebraska, 19-7, in the Holiday Bowl; the same Huskers team that shellacked Washington, 56-21, in Seattle earlier in the season.
This unit welcomes six starters back, but obviously has to fill the big shoes of Locker. And that job will go to sophomore Keith Price, who beat out redshirt freshman Nate Montana—yes, Joe’s son—during spring camp. Price saw action in eight games last season while Locker dealt with injuries, including as the starter against then-No. 1 Oregon in November.
In that game, Price went 14-for-28 for 127 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions in the Huskies' 53-16 loss. In the spring game, Price shone by going 20 of 28 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns. He also scrambled for another 53 yards on five carries, but he’s not the running threat that Locker is.
Price should have some good targets with two starting receivers, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, back. And top recruit and high school All-American Kasen Williams arrives in the fall. But look for Washington to be ground-heavy behind Chris Polk. He’s a workhorse back who gained 1,415 yards last season and is also a good receiver. Overall six starters are back.
This unit welcomes eight starters back, with the biggest holes to fill at linebacker. Mason Foster and Victor Aiyewa need to be replaced on the outside. The pair combined for 244 tackles, 35 stops for loss, and 11 sacks a year ago. The strength should be the line, which is led by massive tackle Alameda Ta'amu. It could be the Huskies’ best D-Line in several years. Nate Fellner, who led the team with five picks last year, heads up the secondary. Both kickers also return.
The opener should be very interesting as the Huskies host defending Football Championship Subdivision champion Eastern Washington on Sept. 3. It’s not inconceivable an upset happens there. UW was very inconsistent at home last year with three losses, all by double digits. Then follows a dangerous home game against high-powered Hawaii.
The Huskies probably won’t be favored in any of their road games: at Nebraska, Utah, Stanford, Southern Cal and Oregon State. They should be favored in at least five of their home games, with the Arizona game possibly going either way. The Huskies will certainly be underdogs when Oregon visits.
2011 Washington Huskies Futures Odds
UW is 150/1 on Bodog to win the national title. Those are tied for the second-longest odds on the board. Washington is +600 on WagerWeb to win the Pac-12 North and +1,000 to win the conference championship game. Polk, the Huskies tailback, is 25/1 on Bodog to win the Heisman.
2011 Washington Huskies Football Predictions
This team could make strides this year, and it might not show in the record with those immensely tough road games. Some around the program think it is better off that Locker is gone because he basically got all the attention.
I do think Polk could have the best season of any running back in the conference outside of LaMichael James. With Sarkisian’s very good recruiting classes, a big jump could happen in 2012, but probably not this season. Look for a 7-5 regular season record and a third-place finish in the North.