- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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With recruiting behind us and spring well underway, the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell Washington winning the North?
Sell: I think Washington is going to take another step forward under coach Steve Sarkisian this season. I think this team wins nine or 10 games and ends up ranked in the nation's top-25 by season's end.
But I don't think the Huskies overtake the Oregon/Stanford tandem. If the Cardinal doesn't win the North Division, the Ducks will. And vice versa. That's my entirely predictable and justifiable position. I don't expect any so-called pundits to project it differently.
You know: Just like USC was a certainty in the South last season.
As we all know -- see those pesky 2012 Trojans -- there are no sure things. So if the Ducks and Cardinal were to both slip, I do see Washington as owning the best chance of clawing to the top.
Why? There are 20 returning starters from a 7-6 team that beat Stanford and Oregon State. There are intriguing guys coming off the injury list. I suspect quarterback Keith Price has a bounce back this fall, looking far closer to the guy he was in 2011 than he was in 2012. He certainly can expect better offensive line play (if everyone stays healthy).
Further, there's plenty of star power: tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, running back Bishop Sankey, receiver Kasen Williams, nose tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Shaq Thompson. I like the idea of Year 2 with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Yet for all that, I don't see the Huskies winning the North.
We should have a good idea of things by mid-October. The Huskies should be 4-0 when they visit Stanford on Oct. 5. If they were somehow to win that game and improve to 5-0, Oregon's visit the next weekend to renovated Husky Stadium might be the biggest thing in Montlake since … 1991.
To be honest, I can't adequately describe how much Washington fans would salivate over that one. This is the nastiest rivalry in the Pac-12, and the Ducks have won nine consecutive games in that nasty rivalry by at least 17 points. That is the cruelest bane for all who wear purple. Not surprisingly, Oregon fans have not been shy about pointing that out to Huskies fans, who have had few counter-tweaks of late.
The Pac-12 blog might need to add bandwidth for that week. I get warm-fuzzies just thinking about stirring that pot… ah, bliss.
But, really, think about what that means: The Huskies beating top-5 teams back-to-back.
Just don't see it happening. Been wrong before. But probably not this time. Maybe.
Sell: I like Washington this year -- and think the Huskies will finally get over that seven-win hump with nine or 10 wins. The defense made huge strides last season, and I've been a big Sankey fan -- even before his breakout game against Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. I promise here and now that he will be on the preseason Top 25 list (unless Pitt somehow finds a way to block it).
But what scares me the most about Washington this season is the travel. When it was playing in CenturyLink last season -- there was something special about this team. Or maybe it was just the effect the NFL stadium had on opponents. Whatever it was, Washington was a top 15 team when playing at home -- going 5-1 with its only loss to USC.
There, the Huskies beat top 10 teams Stanford and Oregon State. Stanford coach David Shaw told me it was the third loudest game he'd ever experienced. The second was a trip to Autzen, and the first was an NFL playoff game.
The acoustics at the newly minted Husky Stadium might prove to be as tympanicly torturous as those at The CLink. Too bad some of Washington's biggest games aren't at home. Last season Washington was 2-5 away from Seattle, with its only victories coming at Cal and Colorado.
This season it is at Stanford (and I don't think there is any need to rehash what happened last time the Huskies traveled to The Farm). Then it's home to Oregon -- and I don't think there is any need to rehash the recent history of that rivalry. Oh wait, Ted already did. Then they are at Arizona State -- a team that will contend for the Pac-12 South and poses a defensive front that rivals Stanford's.
Then it's at UCLA and at Oregon State in back-to-back games before closing out the season with the Apple Cup at home. We're expecting UCLA and Oregon State to also be top 25 teams. That means four of Washington's five road games this season are against potentially ranked teams. For a team with a history of troubles away from home, this doesn't bode particularly well.
As Ted notes, and I concur, the Huskies should be a better team in 2013. But until they show they can notch quality road wins, a buy rating feels like a stretch.
1dCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill