Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Part of the Doc's Pac-10 Week.

I think the most relevant question when assessing any turnaround project is a general, "What are you good at?" Even most bad teams have something, somewhere to hang their hats on going forward, which is what makes Steve Sarkisian's job at Washington so staggering: On the field, the Huskies have nothing. Based on the most relelvant statistics last year -- and no, I'm not including the win-loss record in that category -- Washington was one of the worst dozen or so teams in the country and one of the worst two or three in the Pac-10 (remember, that includes Washington State) by every possible measure.

That includes more peripheral categories I usually ignore, like net punting (112th nationally), kickoff returns (113th) and tackles for loss (115th), in each of which they were the worst team in the conference. Literally, the Huskies did nothing well, or even halfway competently. The two chances they had to actually win a game, they got the tying PAT blocked and gave up a 48-yard pass to the only worse offense in the country with less than a minute to play to set up the game-tying field goal en route to an overtime loss, respectively. They didn't move the ball, they didn't stop anyone from moving the ball, they turned the ball over, they put one guy on the all-conference team and they lost every game, usually by a lot.

Okay. That was then. Where can Washington succeed going forward? The short answer is, "Keep Jake Locker healthy." The long answer is, "Make Sarkisian look more like Jim Harbaugh or Mike Stoops than Paul Wulff" -- that is, find a way to get the team on solid footing, slowly improve the talent level, stay competitive with the conference middleweights and, most importantly, remain patient.

Notice that description doesn't include winning, at least not for a year or two. It goes without saying that even a team stocked with Tyrone Willingham recruits can't go winless two years in a row, especially with Locker back at quarterback, and Husky fans obviously expect to be back on the board this year against Idaho and Washington State, if no one else. And make no mistake, they will be favorites against no one else. But like Stoops and Harbaugh after taking over two of the worst Pac-10 outfits of the decade, the first step isn't about winning as much as it is just getting in the ballpark:

Immediate Improvement by First-Year Coaches
  Arizona (Stoops)   Stanford (Harbaugh)
  2003 2004   2006 2007
Overall W-L 2-10 3-8 Overall W-L 1-11 4-8
Pac-10 W-L 1-7 2-6 Pac-10 W-L 1-8 3-6
Yards/Game (+/-) -152 -90.5 Yards/Game (+/-) -156 -113
Pts/Game (+/-) -20.7 -10.1 Pts/Game (+/-) -20.8 -8.7
Losses by > 17 8 4 Losses by > 17 8 4
Losses by < 7 2 2 Losses by < 7 1 2

Those teams in 2004 and 2007 were still pretty terrible -- even in the most shocking upset ever, Stanford was predictably outgained by 224 yards at USC, which in turn handed the Cardinal five turnovers -- but they were dramatically better than the outfits that were tossed around like rag dolls the previous year, just by cutting the margin of defeat and the number of lopsided losses in half. Stoops has steered down this path and improved Arizona every year of his tenure, finally getting the Wildcats into a bowl last year, when he was supposed to be on the verge of getting the boot; Harbaugh is on the same trajectory so far at Stanford (minus the boot part).

Washington was comparable to both those teams in its wretchedness last year, dropping nine games by 18 points or more and finishing about 25 points in the hole on average. The goal this year (the only goal, other than "win a game") should be to cut those numbers -- as well as the embarrassing 189-yard-per-game yardage deficit -- in half. Sarkisian is already making a little noise as a recruiter, which may be his best asset, but which will also be hard to sustain if there's no discernible progress on the field. For now, that won't be measured in wins and losses -- more than three wins with this squad will be a heroic effort -- but how they play the game.

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