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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Washington

The least you should know about Washington... What's Changed: A lot of seriouswaffling about quarterback messiah Jake Locker's redshirt status ended in an indecisive, doomed experiment with juniors Carl Bonnell and (to a much lesser extent) Johnny DuRocher after Isaiah Stanback was lost for good against Oregon State. Stanback was one of those all-world sort of athletes, a star in track and baseball, and once he figured out a few of the finer points of quarterback, he had the Huskies in the top 25 for a couple weeks after their wins over UCLA and Arizona (as a point of reference for that start, UW was 1-15 in the Pac Ten over 2004-05) and within a somewhat controversial finish of tying USC on the final play in L.A. Not that the offense was a barn-burning kind of affair, anyway, but Washington was sitting at 4-2 midway through the season, up 17-10 on Oregon State in the third quarter when Stanback went down, apparently dragging every shred of bodily-kinesthetic competence and/or morale with him:
2006 Record
5-7 (3-6 Pac Ten, 9th)
Past Five Years
21-38 (12-29 Pac Ten)
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
No Husky had a better November than defensive end Greyson Gunheim: four straight games with a sack and at least one other tackle for loss, 17 total tackles (half his season total), a forced fumble, another quarterback hurry…the pleasures are small for the Huskies, but on a team with only scattershot firepower on offense, a three-starter with a bead on the quarterback and some all-conference mention is a genuine standout.
Bizarre Tradition
Because it had a hard time coming up with a suit for "Sun Dodgers," Washington made the move to "Huskies" in the twenties, thereby birthing Division I’s most under-exposed live animal mascot. One hurdle to wider recognition may be that, instead of naming the animal "Mike," "Uga," "Ralphie," etc. regardless of the actual beast filling the role, Washington gives each of its successive Alaskan Malamutes its own name, like "Frosty," or "Denali," or the current standard-bearer since 1999, Whitepaw's Arlut Spirit of Gold Dust. Well, maybe that’s part of the problem.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Husky Stadium serves the distinction not only of being one of the nation’s scenic lakeside beauties (and once achieving a decibel level above the threshold of pain), but also as the site of the final speech ever given by our 29th and most unanimously corrupt president, the very dour Warren G. Harding, before his mysterious death in San Francisco.

Husky Stadium was also visited even earlier, in 1903, by the equally dour Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who watched Washington play Nevada and offered his thoughts on the young sport:

"I saw a lot of white men almost fight today. I do not think this good. This may be all right, but I believe it is not. I feel pleased that Washington won the game. Those men I should think would break their legs and arms, but they did not get mad. I had a good time at the game with my white friends."

Football: bringing the world together, somewhat, since 1903. At least.

First 7 Gms. Last 5 Gms.
Record 4-3 1-4
Scoring 23.3 19.8
Total Off. 351.7 279.8
Comp. % 52.7 42.3
TD Passes 11 8
INTs 3 13

The most egregious of that right column was an absolutely ghastly, three-point, 161-yard "effort" at Stanford, during which DuRocher came off the bench to generate a truly historic  negative passer rating by completing 1 of 9 with two interceptions, one run back for a touchdown. It's one thing to get stuffed for a measly 138 yards against Oregon, as UW had the previous week, but that turd against the winless, hapless Cardinal was probably the single worst offensive performance of the season, perhaps of the decade. (In DuRocher's defense, he was playing with a brain tumor. Best wishes in his recovery)

Locker: Messiah. No pressure.
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Still, the redshirt remained on Locker, with the consequence that he remains a freshman with no game experience as he assumes the position (heh) this year. Bonnell made some overtures to competing for the position in the spring - he presumably still carries some clout for getting the eventual losses to Cal and Arizona State into overtime - but Locker is reported to be the reincarnation of Rose Bowl-winning Marques Tuiasosopo, without the legendary barrage of vowels but with the size and speed to open up Ty Willingham's stodgy, vaguely "West Coast" scheme. Take the hype for what it's worth, but as a freshman, especially a freshman working with an iffy running game and the one potentially game-breaking receiver of Willingham's tenure, departed 1930s Warner Brothers cartoon hobo Sonny Shackelford, Locker'll be a relative success if he wards off enough frustration to keep Bonnell on the bench all year.

What's the Same: Willingham returns 13 starters, none of them concentrated in any particular area, so with literally every position a mix of mediocre old and moderately-regarded new, the whole is likely to plot about the same course as last year's very improved team; with nothing approaching a star player - in all the magazines, only defensive end Greyson Gunheim is even second team all-conference, sporadically - or dominant tendencies towards any single style of play, Willingham himself and his penchant for conservatism, fundamentals and high fiber is the team's identity. The Huskies will run about 30 times a game, throw about 30 times, and usually be realistically in the mix in the fourth quarter, which describes all of Willingham's teams back to Stanford.

A man and his team grow boring together.
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The experience of the skill players on offense might warrant some tentative optimism. Shackelford graduated, but the next eight receivers behind him return, however unspectacular. Louis Rankin has done some spectacular things at tailback, mostly in 2005 before he was knocked out for the season, but his inconsistency last year did yield some big games against San Jose State (145 yards, 2 TD on just ten carries), Oklahoma (112 on 17), Cal (88 yards) and Washington State (118, 2 TDs), though it was never certain whether Rankin would get 23 carries or just three, as he did in the loss to UCLA.

Obligatory Defensive Meh: Nothing good to report here, though it could be so much worse if you're only looking game-by-game: the defense was the same bland mixture of below-average-but-not-terrible its counterpart was most of the time, sometimes predictably forgiving (Oklahoma, Cal, USC, Oregon State, Oregon) but never in the 500-yard, 40-point sense, and was occasionally solid against weaker attacks by the same turn (Fresno State, Arizona, Stanford). All the incremental allowances added up to UW ranking 95th in total defense and 85th in scoring, though, which is pretty terrible. At its best, the defensive line got after the quarterback without much blitzing help and adds a couple pretty well-regarded VHTs who redshirted last year, but it was shut out by USC and Oregon State and the like. Game after game, everything about this unit was pretty much exactly what you would expect, and there are no changes beyond the typical turnover. You know, meh.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: OC Tim Lappano is "very satisfied" with Locker's grasp of the offense, but the microscope is still too large on his to overlook his inconsistency and occasional footwork issues (and his heartwarming shaved head). Much more love for XXL receiver Marcel Reece, who ended an otherwise quiet season with 107 yards and a touchdown against Washington State and broke out with three more touchdowns in the spring game. That was against third and fourth-stringers in the Huskies' weird, stacked-deck scrimmage setup, but practice reports had the 240-pounder juking people, knocking people out of practice, scoring from everywhere.

Washington football also doubled its prestige factor overnight by its decision to recognize the 1960 Orange Bowl winner as national champion, as voted by the duly impressed voters of the long-defunct Helms Athletic Association of Los Angeles back in the day. UW became the fifth (and presumably final) school to claim a stake of the 1960 national championship, along with Ole Miss (seven selectors), Minnesota (four selectors, including the widely-recognized AP and UPI prior to the Gophers' bowl defeat), Iowa (four selectors, among them the retroactive Sagarin computer title) and Missouri (one selector). All are listed by the NCAA, which has nothing to do with staging a championship or crowning its winner. Hang a banner and make it so: Washington's goes up Sept. 29th against USC, a mere 47 years after the fact.

 Washington on YouTube: A completely neutral video dubbed, sufficiently, "Apple Cup Rap":

The Apple what? Yeah.

See Also: Way too much stupid fun with the Apple Cup ... You are there as Marlon Wood hauls in last year's ridiculous hail mary at Cal ... And going way back for a pair of big UW wins in the early nineties: against Nebraska in 1992 and against Miami in 1994.

Conventional Wisdom: It's not that nobody thinks Washington will be any good, but every one of the eighth or ninth place consensus accompanies its pessimism with the same thoughts:

TSN: "The Huskies should be better, but they'll have a tough time getting more than the five wins they posted last season because they're playing the conference's most difficult schedule..."
Phil Steele: "This is Willingham's best team in his 3 years but it will be tough to get a winning record vs. the nation's toughest schedule."
Athlon: "The Huskies have definite strengths and weaknesses. [Like what on the "strength" side? - ed.] They also have a killer schedule...Washington could field a better team than the year before, but not have the record to show for it."
Street and Smith's: "They should be more disciplined, better conditioned and deeper than in Willingham's first two seasons, but the early season schedule is brutal - arguably the toughest in the country."

You get the idea.

If you don't know Marcel Reece, you better aks somebody. Preferably somebody who was at practice.
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Best-Case: Willingham is hell-bent on getting UW back into a bowl game, which will require some unexpected doing. That September gauntlet, for the record: at Syracuse, Boise State, Ohio State, at UCLA, Southern Cal. Then comes the rest of the Pac Ten, capped by a trip to Hawaii, among whom only Stanford failed to earn bowl eligibility last year. Again, that's supposed to be the easy part. At Syracuse is not an upset, though Boise State would be, and an essential one to build a little early momentum. The Huskies will probably have to win four in the conference, better than they've managed in years, but at Stanford with Arizona and Washington State at home - all games UW could be favored to win going in - give them an opening with a road upset at either UCLA, Arizona State or Oregon State. Winning more than one of those is probably out of the question, but it will only take one if the chips fall elsewhere to put something at stake in the island finale. Seven wins might be met with more miraculous overtones than it deserves to be, given the usual free-for-all nature of the Pac Ten's bottom six or seven.

Worst-Case: Only two teams on this schedule had worse records than Washington last year: Syracuse and Stanford. The Huskies are the underdog in the other ten, and therefore can easily lose all ten in the non-rosy imagination. The Carrierdome is no place for guarantees, either, against another fallen quasi-power in exactly the same dire straights recently as UW. I'm willing to give them Stanford, regardless of what happened last year, but nobody else. Willingham wouldn't survive 1-10, but it looks slightly more likely than 7-6 under the circumstances.

Non-binding Forecast: I had a hard time writing about this team because, barring a shocking, program-defining breakthrough out of Locker, there are no special talents to recommend it. There's a vague feeling of upward mobility; three conference wins and a couple more competitive, to-the-wire losses last year was a move ahead after the horrific performances of 2003-04, the kind of step that would usually lead you to think the postseason is around the corner. But the entire bottom half of the conference fits that description, and most of them are starting out ahead of Washington. I think the Huskies would be doing well to hang onto those three wins and pick up another one outside of the league - that will have to be Syracuse - and it's not very likely they'll move past 4-8.with this schedule.

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Previous assessments, reasonable and absurd:

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International
June 27: Oregon State July 2: Michigan