With the Huskies’ season opener at Boise State now a little less than three days away, it’s time to take a stab at predicting UW’s final regular-season record.
Trying to predict the outcome of individual games being played in the coming week is difficult enough, but trying to predict the outcome of a game that won’t be played for another month or two is almost silly. So instead of offering a game-by-game prediction – which would require me to divulge my double-secret pick for the Boise State game, anyway – I’m just going to break the schedule down into three categories. Any of this could change quickly with an injury or something, but I think this is a pretty fair assessment of preseason perception,
MUST WIN: vs. Sacramento State, vs. Utah State, at Oregon State, vs. Washington State
Comment: “Must win” is obviously a sort of nebulous term, but if the question is “Which four teams are the Huskies most likely to beat?” then I believe this is how I would answer. (In other words, if they can’t beat these four teams, how likely are they to beat anyone else?) Anyway. Sacramento State and Utah State are in this category for obvious reasons. OSU might be tough on the road, but the Beavers have a lot of holes to fill and are also breaking in a new quarterback (or maybe two new quarterbacks) while still transitioning into the Gary Andersen era. … I do think WSU could be a tough matchup given how deep the Cougars are at receiver and how well they throw the ball, but I think the Huskies’ defense will be relatively seasoned by then – they already have maybe a little more experience than meets the eye – and WSU looks like one of the weaker teams on UW’s very difficult conference schedule. That all could look totally different come late November, but I think it’s a fair perception for now.
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TOUGH, BUT NOT UNDOABLE: at Boise State, vs. California, vs. Arizona, vs. Utah
I had trouble deciding whether to place Boise State here or in the final category – the Broncos are a top-25 team and double-digit home favorites, after all – but because BSU is breaking in a new quarterback and a new tailback, this one feels just a touch more manageable than road trips to USC, Stanford and ASU, and home games against Oregon and Arizona. … The Huskies dominated Cal in Berkeley last season, but the Golden Bears figure to improve with junior quarterback Jared Goff and several key offensive playmakers returning – though I’d still rate Cal as the third-most winnable Pac-12 game on the Huskies’ schedule. … UW matched up well with Arizona in Tucson last season, but the Wildcats return most of their offensive starpower (including starting quarterback Anu Solomon and 1,375-yard rusher Nick Wilson) and the Huskies will obviously look a lot different defensively. Winnable, but the ‘Cats should be pretty tough. … Utah won nine games last season, returns 14 starters including its fifth-year senior quarterback (Travis Wilson), one of the league’s best running backs (Devontae Booker) and a few key members of what was a pretty smothering defense last year. Don’t sleep on the Utes.
LEAST WINNABLE GAMES ON THE SCHEDULE: at USC, vs. Oregon, at Stanford, at Arizona State
The Huskies haven’t beat Oregon or Arizona State in more than 10 years, both teams are again loaded with talent and ranked in the top 25, and both are likely going to present a lot of matchup problems. … The Thursday night game against USC won’t be easy, either – the Trojans might have the league’s top quarterback in Cody Kessler, a veteran offensive line, quality receivers and a scary-athletic defense – but maybe going against Steve Sarkisian for the first time since he left UW will give the Huskies a little more juice. … Unless Stanford is overrated again – not impossible, given how much defensive talent the Cardinal lost – this should be another really tough road game in a venue where the Huskies haven’t won since 2007. And I think Stanford’s offense will be a little better this year with Kevin Hogan as a fifth-year senior, a bunch of big receivers and tight ends and some capable tailbacks.
Here’s how I see things shaking out, roughly: the Huskies will win at least three of those “must-wins.” They’re talented enough, I think, to win all four, but there’s always the possibility that WSU or OSU will be much better than projected.
UW would do well, I think to win two of the games in that middle group – most likely California and Utah, though I think the Utes could be pretty darn good, relative to the lack of attention they’re getting – but at this juncture, I don’t know that I would confidently predict the Huskies to beat either of the four teams in the third group.
They have a talented roster full of promising prospects who held scholarship offers from a lot of quality football programs. The more I think about it, the more I think their defense could be more sound than expected, and they’ve got a nice blend of skill and depth at tailback and tight end. There are some talented pieces on board, no doubt.
But much of that talent is either young, inexperienced, or both. And if last season taught us anything, it’s that a solid defense isn’t enough to win consistently in the Pac-12. The Huskies had four defensive players selected in the first 44 picks of the NFL draft – including three first-team All-Americans and the school’s all-time sacks leader – and still lost six games, mostly because the offense was so inert.
And while there are a few reasons for optimism (the progression of Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius, the emergence of Dwayne Washington, the intrigue of Jake Browning), I don’t see enough evidence to indicate that this season will absolutely be better. They’re relying on another new starting quarterback – whether it’s Browning, K.J. Carta-Samuels or Jeff Lindquist – and an entirely rebuilt offensive line, plus seven or eight new defensive starters in a conference that is again loaded with proven quarterback talent and other returning stars.
On Monday, I asked coach Chris Petersen if he believes this team could win more games than it did a year ago, despite the amount of talent lost.
“I think we can be a good team, I really do,” Petersen said. “I know what we have in that room and I think, like I’ve said before, if our kids will keep playing for each other and keep getting better, and … we all get so hung up on winning and losing, and that’s the beauty of sports. At the end of that contest you’ve got the scoreboard right there, and most of the time it tells us we’re great people or a bunch of big losers. If we can stay away from that mentality and say ‘hey, we’re competing to what we’re truly capable of, and where do we need to go from here? What do we need to do to make this process bigger and better?’ We’ll get some things done.”
I think this could be a competitive team with a capable defense and a few nice offensive playmakers (and I do think Browning will eventually be a productive Pac-12 quarterback, regardless of his involvement this season).
But it feels like this team’s ceiling might be in the seven-win range. The lack of experience up front and the mystery surrounding the quarterback position are too significant to ignore, and probably the primary difference between a team like the Huskies and the upper tier of the Pac-12.
With all that in mind, let’s call it a 5-7 final record (was leaning at first toward 6-6, but another look at the schedule ultimately swayed me) and fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 North, with expectations much higher heading into 2016.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple