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NCAA Football

Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 38 Washington Huskies

As the Rant Sports 100 teams in 100 days college football previews roll closer to our Top 25, it’s time to focus on the No. 38 Washington Huskies. One could argue that the Huskies are in a no-win situation in the PAC-12 conference with the presence of potential national champion USC in the South and North division rivals Oregon and Stanford each looking at strong season ahead. In other words, Washington may be better than its final record will appear as clearing those three aforementioned teams to get into the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) steeplechase may be an impossible task.

Back in 2008, head coach Ty Willingham led the Huskies to a winless, 0-12 season. It was awful. The school, finally, had enough and wooed then-USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to Seattle to become the Huskies’ head coach. Among his first tasks was to get quarterback Jake Locker to stick around for another year or two, which Locker did happily.

Flash forward to 2011, when the Locker-less Huskies, having already made a return to a post-season bowl, hit the field with a new kid under center, a growing base of talent, solid recruiting and monster running back. Washington finished the regular season third in the North with a 7-6 overall record (5-4 in PAC-12).

Washington, which returns eight starters on offense and eight on defense, has not won the conference since 2000 and even with USC, Oregon and Stanford in the way, the Huskies are aiming for the top.

Impact Players

Offense

Sure, the Huskies put up a less-than-stellar season in 2011, but the offensive performance against Baylor in the Alamo Bowl — despite the defense allowing 67 points — was really quarterback Keith Price’s coming-out party. Price outplayed Baylor’s Robert Griffin III with a 4-touchdown, 438-yard performance in the 67-56 loss, and gave Huskies fans nationwide something to look forward  to in 2012.

This year, it begins and ends with quarterback Price (3,063 yards, 33 touchdowns, 162 QB rating), who must stay healthy for the entire season as he was dinged up too often in 2011 and missed valuable time early. He will sorely miss favorite wide receivers Jermaine Kearse (Seattle Seahawks) and Devin Aguilar (Tennessee Titans) and will count heavily on sophomore Kasen Williams, who emerged in the last month of the season, and senior James Johnson.

The running game will be forced to learn how to play without running back Chris Polk (Philadelphia Eagles), who put up 1,488 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns last season. Jessie Callier, Cole Sager and Bishop Sankey could make up a solid committee backfield.

Perhaps the best news is that Huskies welcome four of five returning starters to the offensive line, anchored by senior center Drew Schaefer. The unit gelled as the 2011 season progressed and the team will count heavily upon the O-line to solidify the offense.

Defense

On the other side of the ball, the Washington defense, weak and porous for much of the 2011 season, must improve if the Huskies are to compete with USC, Oregon and Stanford, to say nothing of potential upstarts like Washington State. The unit allowed over 453 yards and 33 points per game, including 65 points to Stanford, 51 to Nebraska and 40 to USC. That trend must be reversed.

The entire secondary will return, led by senior cornerback Desmond Trufant and safeties Sean Parker and Justin Glenn. The front seven will see significant changes, though outside linebackers Princeton Fuimaono and John Timu are back.

Schedule

After opening at home against San Diego State, the Huskies trek to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Sept. 8. Talk about an opportunity to set the tone. Things won’t get any easier once the PAC-12 schedule begins, as Washington kicks off the conference slate with four tough games: Stanford, at Oregon, USC and at Arizona. By the time they host Oregon State on Oct. 27, the world may know all it needs to know about the Huskies.

While Washington is expected to be a better team that it was in 2011, the competitive PAC-12 schedule is a tough one and the Huskies won’t play Arizona State or UCLA this year. An 8-4 overall record (6-3 PAC-12) is possible, but Washington must play near-perfect ball and avoid disaster in trap games against Utah, California, Arizona and Washington State if it wants to play in a major bowl in the post-season.