Expectations are always tough to deal with, and coming off of a surprisingly successful season certainly has expectations high for UW from its fans. When we look at the press though, expectations are pretty limited. Few polls have the Pokes above 5th or 6th place in the MWC, and certainly few expect them to beat last year's top four teams in the conference. I'm not going to sugar-coat things, but this could in fact be a very rough year for Cowboy fans.
Dave Christensen enters his second year after having a very surprising season. In 2009 UW was picked to finish last in the MWC, but due to quite a few last minute heroics in a handful of games, the team finished at a respectable 7-6, and 4-4 in conference play. UW also contributed to a very successful bowl season with its come from behind win over Fresno State in a double overtime thriller. Quite a few pundits were taken by surprise with the quality and excitement of the game, and the unexpected outcome. I'm sure most everyone remembers the heroic goal line stand on the 1 in the first overtime, with UW stopping Fresno's first round draft pick, running back Ryan Matthews.
Last season is starting to become a distant memory, and the hurdles that UW faces in repeating even a 6-6 performance are quite staggering. Christensen has his work cut out for him, but he has set in place tools to help the team overcome the minimal expectations that have certainly plagued them since the schedule was released early this year.
A Brutal Schedule
The first thing that pops out to fans when planning their UW football watching schedule is how packed, and how deep UW's opponents are this year. Not only are there some quality games, but UW is one of the few programs in the country that does not have a bye week this year. UW also faces three pre-season Top 10 teams, plus a handful of teams that could slip into the top 25 fairly easily.
The first game is against a respectable FCS opponent in Southern Utah. UW should win this one, but stranger things have happened in college football (see Michigan). This is a much needed warmup game for the Pokes, as they are transitioning to a 4-3 defense. This also will be a nice time for the offensive line to start gelling and Austyn Carta-Samuels connecting with some of his new, speedy receivers.
Then things get interesting. UW heads down to Austin to play Texas for the second of a three game series between the two schools. UW had a very respectable showing against the Longhorns last year, and led that team until about a minute away from half-time. Then the bloodbath started and UT left with a 41-10 win. Things do not get any easier after this game this year.
The following week UW goes up against perennial BCS buster, Boise State. Many writers consider BSU to have a good chance of getting to the National Championship game, and if they run their schedule as they have in the past, then it is a very good chance. This could turn out to be a very physical game, and one that involves a lot of pride for UW. The Cowboys then have to saddle up for another physical match by playing Air Force. Last year's game was a defensive struggle, and this year may very likely mirror that one.
Then it is off to Toledo. This is a game that many assume UW will win, but it certainly is not a given. I remember watching that very strange game of Toledo vs. Colorado last year, in which Toledo pulled off a very convincing win. As we remember from that last season, Colorado shut out UW in a 21-0 win. This is a quality opponent who can surprise their foes, but the team does show some inconsistency when viewing their results from last year.
The road trip back from Ohio will certainly not be welcome considering UW will have to hop back on a plane and travel to Fort Worth to play TCU. This will be the third top-10 team that UW faces in a five week span. Utah and BYU will then finish out this harrowing run, and those opponents have the greatest chance of breaking into the top 25 rankings by the end of the season.
The last four games are against the bottom dwellers of the MWC, but none can be considered a freebie. SDSU is possibly the scariest, as I have a tremendous amount of respect for Brady Hoke's abilities as a coach. When we watch film of the first games of SDSU's season last year, and compare them to the last several games of the season, it is very apparent that the team had made significant improvements. This year will certainly build upon that, as SDSU sports one of the more impressive QB-receiver trios in Ryan Lindley, Vincent Brown, and DeMarco Sampson. This could potentially be an offense that gives other MWC teams fits.
New Mexico will also be a strange one, but perhaps the closest to being an easily winnable game. My faith in Mike Locksley as a head coach is weak. In fact, I get the impression that he has more in common with Vic Koenning than the people of New Mexico would like. Vic was a very talented defensive coordinator, but he fell down as a head coach. Some people just seem to thrive when they are not the head honcho, and my impression is that Mike is this type of coach. This will obviously be an important year for Locksley, because if he has a repeat of last season, he could very well be out the door. Also, would it be considered irony or merely bad luck that Locksley was the OC for the Fighting Illini, and Vic Koenning is the current DC for that team?
UNLV will also not be an easy game, as it is late in the season and the team has a chance to really embrace what Bobby Hauck is trying to accomplish. I would have been far more confident in UW's ability to beat UNLV if it had been played at the beginning of the season rather than in the second half. This will be a challenging game for UW, but again I believe UW has a more talented group of people who have fully bought into what Christensen has brought to the table.
The final game is seriously a crapshoot. Anything can happen in this rivalry game. CSU will certainly be ready for this game, as will UW. This game could very well decide a bowl berth between these two teams, or at the very least would decide UW's post-season fate. I fully expect CSU to have a better overall team this year, but they have a lot of hurdles with personnel in key positions.
Injuries are Key
The front loaded schedule that UW plays is bound to cost the team in terms of injuries. I distinctly remember a promising season in the mid-90's that was cut short by an early trip to Texas A&M, in which something like 11 starters were injured and out for a significant portion of the season. This was during the Dana Dimmel years, and I believe that the strength and conditioning of the team was not nearly at the level as we see today.
If UW can make it through that first 6 game stretch with minimal injuries, then the team has a good chance at having a successful season. Unfortunate things happen, and there are simply some situations where there is no control over preventing injuries. The coaching staff at UW has minimized this to a very significant degree though, and the strength and conditioning of the players today is probably the best we have seen in the history of UW football.
Last year at this time, Christensen had commented about how disappointed he was in the conditioning of the athletes. Basically it was a far cry from what he was used to seeing at Missouri and other schools in the Big XII. It was a big push after the 2008 season, and the hiring of Christensen and his staff, to get the current members of the UW football program to train at the level expected of them. Some student leaders really came forward and helped get the group into gear, but it takes time to change the mentality of players and to get them to improve physiologically. From all indications, and comments from the coaches, the players are now training at the level that is expected of them.
The team is stronger and faster this year, and this should allow them to more ably compete with top caliber teams both in and out of conference.
Let me say this early. If UW goes 6-6 again this year, I will actually be ecstatic. Even though the results would be nearly identical to last year's, it does not mean that the team has bogged down or has regressed. The schedule is just plain tough, and UW will likely have beaten the teams they expect to beat, and hopefully will be competitive with the teams that are ranked higher.
Speaking of rankings, the Sporting News' ranking of #88 is simply a slap in the face of the program. I hope that UW players have that posted on their boards, and have it act as motivation for being so underrated. I would argue that they are easily a top 60 program, but certainly they have a lot to prove to be much lower than that.
If UW goes 7-5, that means that they have pulled off at least one upset. I question the improvements that Utah is said to have made, and BYU certainly looks to have a down year as compared to the past several seasons. Air Force actually looks slightly stronger this year. I would say that one of these games is the greatest chance for UW to pull an upset. ESPN's "Bold Prediction" of UW going down to Austin and beating UT is certainly living up to the "Bold" name, and I just do not see UW beating UT in the heat and humidity of Austin on Sept. 11. I would love to be proved wrong though.
The BSU game will be a good indicator of where both programs are. BSU is much more on the level with UW in terms of physical play, but they have a larger group of playmakers and talent on their team. Chris Petersen is a well respected coach, and he is one of those rare people who are able to extract the best performance out of the players he has. This is a trait that I believe Dave Christensen shares. I would be quite happy, yet slightly disappointed, if UW pulls off the upset win. It would be great for the UW program, but it would be a blow to non-AQ schools across the country. In the event of such a loss, BSU would instantly fall out of the rankings and all talk of a national championship appearance would dry up; unless of course UW were to beat Texas the week before. Then we would be having a very different conversation.
While there are some players on the team that stand out from the crowd, if UW wants to achieve any success, then it will have to be as a complete team. 4th quarter heroics from a handful of players will not be enough to have a successful season. Depending on such plays consistently is a good way to have a losing record. Austin Carta-Samuels is highlighted in most previews, but we have seen Freshmen QBs who had impressive seasons fall into mediocrity. Hopefully this will not be the case, but at least for UW it appears as though the 2nd and 3rd string QBs are very solid and productive members of the team. The loss of defensive stalwarts Unrein, Johnson, and Fletcher will certainly be a blow to the team, but the change to a 4-3 defense looks to relieve most of those concerns. Some of the linebackers have gained weight and will be playing defensive end. I think overall this will see an improvement in speed, and a decrease wear and tear on some of the key players. The Gipson brothers will be returning again at cornerback, and their level of play looks to match that of players from larger schools.
UW has much faster receivers this year, and more players should be getting catches throughout the season. This will not be a case of "David Leonard and the Seven Dwarves" in terms of catch count. The second year of playing in the spread offense should be a lot more familiar for the team, especially the O-line and receivers. The team appears to have the personnel to adequately run this type of offense, and we should see a big uptick in overall offensive output. Alvester Alexander looks to be the go-to running back, but a few other players have caught the attention of the coaching staff and UW should have a fair stable of running backs to keep defenses on their toes.
Dave Christensen's second year as head coach is going to be a challenge. I believe it is a very solid team, and in past years would have done very well. Unfortunately for Dave, the very aggressive scheduling that the athletic department has achieved for this year (and looks to continue in the years to come) will not make Dave's job easy. The Mountain West is not helping Dave out either, as the current (and future) membership that UW plays this year are actually playing at a very high level.
The team will see some success this year, and if things go their way then a 7-5 regular season record is not out of reach. If injuries hamper the team, then a 5-7 record is just as likely. I believe that Christensen and his staff will motivate the team to play above expectations, but will it be enough to achieve a winning record? That is a big question, and one that will dog Christensen throughout this season. If UW can be 3-3 at mid-season, then it has a very good chance of winning at least four more games and going bowling. It is going to be a struggle though, and the physical and mental toll of having a season without a bye week could be high if the team does not achieve some early successes.
Good luck to the Pokes this year, it certainly is an exciting upcoming season filled with plenty of upsets and drama. The level of parity between the different conferences certainly has never been greater, so expect some very hard played games this year. September cannot arrive fast enough.