After a surprising 5-1 start to the season that saw them nose into both the AP Top 25 Poll (No. 22) and the BCS Standings (No. 25) after week eight, the overachieving Washington Huskies have suddenly found themselves back in the middle of the bell curve.
A 40-17 shellacking at the hands of the USC Trojans last Saturday proved several things to Huskies fans. Mainly, it proved that Washington has a long way to go before becoming a great team.
To their credit, the Huskies have also come a long way from their 0-12 record just four seasons ago. Since then, under Coach Steve Sarkisian, UW has made significant efforts to turn around its program.
Last season, the Huskies returned to a bowl game for the first time since 2002 and won a bowl game for the first time since the 2001 Rose Bowl.
Sarkisian and his staff have done a laudable job in getting the Huskies back to the head of a Pac-12 class in which Washington has won 15 conference titles.
Two weeks ago, the Huskies secured their second-straight bowl bid—something not achieved since the early 2000s. With that, there is a touch of reacquainted energy among Washington fans.
But a closer look at the Huskies’ rebuilding process reveals that they are not close to reaching that elite class.
Yes, they are heading in the right direction during this reclamation project. However, their 18-17 record (13-10 since 2010) under Sarkisian demonstrates that the Dawgs are just a tick above mediocre.
If they want to contend in the stacked Pac-12 Conference, Washington needs to play up to the level of the best teams.
Since Sarkisian took over, the Huskies are a dismal 5-11 against ranked opponents, but 1-7 against teams ranked 15 or higher (the lone victory being a remarkable upset of No. 3 USC in 2009). In order to consider themselves a truly good team, UW must figure out a way to rise to the occasion against the best teams in the conference and the nation.
In their last eight games against ranked opponents, Washington is 1-7, the one win coming in last year’s Holiday Bowl against then-No. 18 Nebraska.
Inspecting their numbers, it’s not hard to see why the Huskies have not taken the next step to being a strong Pac-12 team.
After all, great teams win on the road, and unfortunately, the Huskies are not consistently capable of doing so. UW has shown it is not a formidable or imposing opponent when it plays away from Husky Stadium.
The Huskies' road record under Sarkisian is 4-11, with an additional victory on a neutral field in the Holiday Bowl.
The next stage for the Sarkisian coaching staff is to inspire the team to perform to their highest abilities on the road. Only then will the Huskies strike fear into their adversaries.
Otherwise, if the Huskies predictably win the comfortable games in their own backyard, and not any of their away games, they will lethargically grind 6-6 or 7-5 records year after year.
That said, road victories are not easy for a program that is still going through growing pains and re-acclimating itself to winning.
On the road, adolescent teams experience the usual jitters that lead to turnovers, penalties and blown coverages. Defense is the first thing to crumble away from home.
This season, the Huskies have a minus-7 turnover margin in their four losses, acquiring only two fumble recoveries and no interceptions in their favor.
Additionally, they have bled in the red zone, giving up 23 scores in 23 attempts—17 for touchdowns.
Worst of all is the Huskies’ run defense on the road. Granted, they’ve faced some of the best teams in the entire country, let alone the Pac-12, but they are allowing an average of 304.75 rushing yards per game in their four losses—an atrocious number that leaves coaches’ heads shaking and routs snowballing.
Sarkisian’s recruiting focus should be on defense in the next couple years.
The former offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at USC, Sarkisian has understandably attended to the construction of the Huskies' offense since his hire. Utilizing UW legend Jake Locker, it was important for Sarkisian to groom the Huskies on the offensive side of the ball.
Defense wins championships, but more importantly for a nascent Huskies program, it wins football games.
With two games remaining this season, along with an undetermined bowl game, the Huskies have a chance to end 2011 on a high note. Running the table would give them a nine-win season—the most since 2000.
However, until they play up to the talents and abilities of the Pac-12’s best teams, the Huskies will not be considered to be among the conference’s elite. Not yet.