Washington coach Steve Sarkisian likes his team's maturity. He likes its depth. He's appreciative it emerged from preseason camp mostly healthy. He's pleased with the focus and willingness to work. And he really likes the spectacular remodel of Husky Stadium.
Sarkisian sees plenty of positives as he enters his fifth season at Washington, including 20 returning starters, a number that doesn't include a handful of former starters who missed the 2012 season due to injuries who are back on the 2013 depth chart.
Don't think Sarkisian isn't aware, however, of the "but" coming, the qualifier, the pause that allows skepticism to walk into the room to confront this optimism. The last three times his team was 0-0 in August, it finished 7-6 in December. This is a program with a dedicated fan base that can recall a time when three consecutive seasons capped by no final game in January was seen as a worrisome downturn.
Of course, part of the problem is that portion of the Huskies dedicated fan base needs to be at least in its mid-to-late 30s to recall the golden age under Don James.
So the excitement of No. 19 Boise State coming to Seattle to open Husky Stadium on Saturday is accompanied by a sense of full-on urgency for Sarkisian and his team. It's time to be relevant again, both in the Pac-12 and nationally. It's time to eyeball Rose Bowls, not just bowl eligibility.
Simply: If not now, then when?
"What's really going to make this place special is how we play, the product we put on the field. Our guys understand that," Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian says his players are eager to prove this is the team; this is the year.
No Husky is more eager to move on to a new season than quarterback Keith Price. He lets out a big laugh when a reporter jokes that both of them are surely pleased that Boise State's arrival means no more talk about 2012. It's now time.
"We understand that seven-win seasons are no longer acceptable," he said. "We're up for the challenge."
The Huskies know the Broncos will offer a challenge for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their having lost to them in last year's Las Vegas Bowl on a last-second field goal. In that game, the Huskies fell behind 18-3, rallied to take a fourth quarter lead but then yielded a 47-yard kickoff return and short drive for the winning kick.
It was emblematic of the season -- slow start, a positive swing in momentum but then an ultimate flop. The Huskies were floundering at 3-4 at the 2012 midpoint but then won four consecutive games as the schedule softened. With the Apple Cup against struggling Washington State and a bowl game ahead, they seemed poised for a potential six-game winning streak to close a nine-win season.
Instead, they epically collapsed in the Apple Cup -- surrendering an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to lose in overtime -- and then fell to Boise State.
You might have heard all this before, but -- apologies -- it's the prevailing narrative until the Huskies change that. Which is where Boise State comes in.
Sarkisian is as aware as anyone that putting too much on this game -- one way or the other -- could damage the season. Beating Boise State likely would push the Huskies into the national rankings, but they will only stay there by continuing to win when Pac-12 play begins. Conversely, allowing a loss to linger could prove catastrophic to the season. The latter could congeal random hotseat chatter into something legitimate for Sarkisian, even though he took over a program after it went 0-12 in 2008.
Another plot twist: The uncertain status of preseason All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He's not been cleared to play due to an injury to his pinkie, Sarkisian said, but the real issue is whether he will face any type of suspension after a spring DUI. Sark isn't saying, giving a reporter seeking clarity a, "Come on dude," during a Monday news conference. If Seferian-Jenkins is out, Price loses a big target, particularly in the red zone.
Price is probably where this game turns. It's likely that Boise State, after giving up 205 yards rushing to Bishop Sankey in the bowl game, is going to gang up on the run and try to force Price to make plays. He'll have a much healthier and seasoned offensive line in front of him, and he's seemed to be back to his old playmaking ways after strong performances in spring practices and fall camp.
Meanwhile, the Huskies defense took big strides last year and seems poised to do so again in year two under coordinator Justin Wilcox. Not only are eight starters back, but Hau'oli Kikaha -- who was brilliant as a true freshman in 2010 when his last name was Jamora -- has won the starting nod at one defensive end, displacing Andrew Hudson, who had 6.5 sacks last year.
"Man, I think he’s better than ever, quite honestly," Sarkisian said. "He is flying around all over the field. You really notice him in practice. He’s creating turnovers, he’s moving all over the field at different positions for us."
Of course, the Broncos have starting QB Joe Southwick back. He was highly efficient over the latter part of the season, including the bowl win over the Huskies.
Price calls it "a good question" when asked if the Huskies should be concerned about being too fired up. They're eager to put last season's disappointment behind them. They're focused on becoming relevant again. And they will be goosed about their fancy new digs.
And those digs are really fancy.
"Aw man, it's awesome," Price said. "Going from our old facilities to our new facilities, it's night and day. But we understand those facilities don't mean anything if we don't win games in our home. That's what's going to make that place even more special."