Rethinking Expectations for the Huskies

There’s a certain mindset you hear from time to time from Washington football fans, whether it’s muttered in the stands, declared at tailgates or used as trash talk against rival supporters. The thinking goes that any day now, the Huskies are going to return to the place atop the conference they occupied during the early 1990s, when Don James led Washington to three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, including a shared national championship in 1991.

In the context of that perspective, Bob Rondeau shared a fascinating statistic before Saturday’s disappointing loss at Arizona. Reminiscing about the famous 1992 game where the Wildcats’ Desert Swarm defense snapped a 22-game Husky winning streak, Rondeau pointed out that since that day, both Arizona and Washington had exactly .500 records. Of course, since that includes some solid years under Jim Lambright and Rick Neuheisel, that means the Huskies have been substantially worse than that over the decade since Neuheisel was fired in 2003. Washington is 40-76 over the last 10 seasons, including this one in progress, and even less competitive in conference play. Check out the cumulative standings among the holdover Pac-10 teams during that span:

Team                W     L      %
-----------------------------------
USC                66    17    .795
Oregon             61    21    .744
Oregon State       48    34    .585
California         46    37    .554
Stanford           41    41    .500
UCLA               39    43    .476
Arizona State      39    43    .476
Arizona            31    51    .378
Washington         25    57    .305
Washington State   21    61    .256

It’s getting more and more difficult all the time to attribute those issues to specific coaches. Using the same method I did last season to evaluate game-by-game performance using Sagarin ratings to create a baseline, I went through every game over the last three seasons. The lines indicate different seasons, and the double lines reflect Washington’s two coaching changes:

If there’s a trend here, I’m not seeing it. While Washington has never struggled as badly under Steve Sarkisian as during the final seasons for Keith Gilbertson (2004) and Tyrone Willingham (2008), the best years of the Sark era are relatively indistinguishable from other good campaigns with the exception of resulting in bowl appearances.

This year’s results have highlighted an interesting pattern. The Huskies have tended to get blown out more under Sarkisian than Willingham. Aside from 2008, when the team fell apart and later quit after Jake Locker‘s injury, Washington suffered relatively few lopsided losses during the Willingham era. From 2005-07, the Huskies were beaten by at least four touchdowns just once (a 56-17 loss to Cal in 2005). By contrast, Washington has lost three blowouts this season (at Arizona, at LSU and at Oregon) and eight during the last three seasons.

The Huskies are having more difficulty playing elite opponents during Sark’s tenure–and there have been plenty of them on the schedule this year, with one more to come in Oregon State next Saturday, the fifth team Washington will face ranked No. 11 or higher at the time. At the same time, Sarkisian’s Huskies have done a better job of taking care of business than Willingham’s teams. During the last four years, Washington has lost only one game that a team playing identically at the level of this year’s Huskies would be expected to win: last season’s loss at Oregon State with Nick Montana at quarterback in place of the injured Keith Price. Letdowns against less talented teams were commonplace under Willingham, including multiple Apple Cup losses.

If that trend holds, it’s good news for the rest of the season. After Washington gets through the Beavers, the schedule will start to even out. The Huskies will face a winnable game at Cal, then be favored in their last three games. If Washington plays consistently, this can still be a bowl team.

In the larger picture, though, the numbers suggest patience and realistic expectations. The Huskies are no longer going through a slump; 2004 and 2008 aside, this is a consistent level of play. Today’s recruits weren’t alive when Washington was the top team in the Pac-10, and the Huskies dominated a conference whose landscape was entirely different. Looming possibility of sanctions or not, Oregon isn’t going anywhere, and Oregon State has become a consistently solid team over the past decade. Both schools, particularly the Ducks, offer an enticing alternative for California kids who are interested in coming to the Northwest.

In their own way, the Beavers offer hope. Anyone claiming back in 1992 that within two decades Oregon State would be one of the Pac-X’s top three teams over a 10-year period would have been laughed out of the room. No college’s fate is set in stone. Washington can get better, and eventually will get better, but it’s time to stop thinking that a return to the early ’90s is only a matter of time.

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One thought on “Rethinking Expectations for the Huskies

  1. Pingback: A Blowout Upset | after the buzzer

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