Is Washington the Pac-12's Surprise Team?

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With Jake Locker gone, Chris Polk looks to lead the Washington offense.

With Jake Locker gone, Chris Polk looks to lead the Washington offense.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Over the next couple of weeks, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

Is Washington the surprise team in the Pac-12? Here are four reasons to like and four to doubt the Huskies in 2011.

Reasons to like the Huskies to surprise:

1. Washington finished 2010 as one of the hottest teams in the Pac-10. The Huskies won their last four games, including a dominating 19-7 Holiday Bowl effort over Nebraska. The Cornhuskers handled Washington early in the year, but the Huskies were ready for revenge in the bowl game. Although three of the victories came against teams that finished with a losing record, Washington seems to have found its rhythm under coach Steve Sarkisian and that momentum will carry into 2011.

2. The statistics failed to indicate much improvement on defense last year. Washington ranked as the No. 70 scoring defense in 2009, but that number slipped to 80th nationally last year. Despite last season’s struggles on defense, the Huskies could be ready to emerge as one of the best in the Pac-12. The defensive line dominated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl victory, limiting the Huskers to 91 rushing yards. Washington allowed only two rushing scores in the final four games of last year. End Hau’oli Jamora and tackle Alameda Ta’amu are Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selections and expected to lead the charge up front. Redshirt freshman Josh Shirley is a wildcard to watch up on the line, as he could emerge as the team’s top pass rusher. The Huskies are also solid at corner, with the return of Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson. Coordinator Nick Holt has the Huskies moving in the right direction on defense and this should be one of the Pac-12’s most-improved units.

3. The Huskies may have a new quarterback, but the offense has one of the best collections of skill players in the Pac-12. Running back Chris Polk rushed for 1,415 yards last season, which ranked as the second-most for a single year in school history. He also earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The junior has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and will be one of the top 10 running backs in college football in 2011. The receiving corps loses D’Andre Goodwin, but Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and James Johnson are back. Kearse earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season. The Huskies are looking for a starter to emerge at tight end and the answer could be a true freshman. Austin Seferian-Jenkins ranked as the No. 33 prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100 and is expected to make an immediate impact. Fellow freshman Kasen Williams could be a significant contributor in the receiving corps this season.

4. An injury to quarterback Jake Locker opened the door for Keith Price to start against Oregon last season. Price had a steady debut, completing 14 of 28 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown against the Ducks. He also completed one pass for a score in a 32-31 win against USC. Although Price’s track record is limited, there were positive signs last season that he can be the successor to Locker. If Price doesn’t play well early, redshirt freshman Nick Montana (son of NFL legend Joe Montana) is waiting in the wings. Montana ranked as the No. 9 quarterback by Athlon Sports in the 2010 recruiting class. Although Price and Montana aren’t ready to repeat Locker’s numbers, the talent is there for Washington to be in good shape under center.

Reasons to doubt the Huskies will surprise

1. Although Keith Price and Nick Montana have a lot of upside, how will they hold up over a full season? Price has a limited body of work, but has completed only 51.3 percent of his throws on 37 attempts. The sophomore will obviously have more attempts to improve that number in 2011, but it may take some time for Price to get comfortable as the starter. Anytime a team has a new quarterback taking over, question marks are always raised about how the offense will adjust. The Huskies have two talented options, but very little experience.

2. Injuries will impact any team, but Washington cannot afford to lose running back Chris Polk. The junior is one of the top players in the Pac-12, but the depth behind him is a concern. Sophomore Jesse Callier rushed for 433 yards on 77 attempts last season and will likely serve as the No. 2 back. Deontae Cooper was expected to contribute to the ground attack, but suffered his second major knee injury and will miss the 2011 season. Callier has proven he can be a capable back if called upon, but the Huskies have to be worried about the depth if something happens to Polk.

3. If Washington wants to move into the top 25 or challenge Oregon for the Pac-12 North title, it will have to overcome a difficult road slate. The Huskies face Nebraska, Utah, Stanford, USC and Oregon State away from Husky Stadium. Utah, USC and Oregon State are all swing games for positioning in the Pac-12. With Eastern Washington and Hawaii traveling to Seattle for the first two games of 2011, the Huskies have an opportunity to get Price comfortable before the first road contest of the year at Nebraska. Washington catches a break with five conference games played in Seattle, but the road slate could be among the most difficult in the conference.

4. The Huskies expect the defensive line to be among the best in the Pac-12 this year, but injuries to tackles Semisi Tokolahi and Sione Potoa’e will limit the depth early in fall practice. Tokolahi may not return in time for the season opener, while Potoa’e is expected to be back. However, the interior of the line could be an issue if Potoa’e is not 100 percent in the season opener. Mason Foster has finished his eligibility, which leaves big shoes to fill at linebacker. If the middle of the line and new linebackers struggle, the Huskies could once again struggle to stop the run. Opponents averaged 190.5 rushing yards per game against Washington last season. There’s a lot of optimism surrounding this defense, but some question marks will need to be answered early in the year. The Huskies played better defense late last season, but the final statistics and rankings showed this unit still has a ways to go. 

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<p> Even though Jake Locker is gone, don't count out Washington from making some noise in the Pac-12.</p>
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