Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian knows what is expected of him this season. After two straight 7-6 campaigns that have served to stabilize a program that was in free fall, the fans want more. Seven wins won’t be a victory this year, it will be a mildly disappointing middle ground. One only has to look around the Husky locker room to see that this fact isn’t lost on anyone within the program. The motto “Take the Next Step” is everywhere, the central message the coaching staff has delivered to the players this season.
But how does a program take the next step? Well, they certainly have to win the games everyone expects them to win. Yet, in the case of the brutal 2012 schedule, even winning all of the games the team is “supposed” to win would certainly leave them with losses to LSU, Stanford, Oregon, and USC. Four losses doesn’t equal a Rose Bowl berth. This very real scenario heading into the season demands something more difficult: the Huskies have to force the nation to expect more of them. Only when people view games against top ten Pac-12 teams like Oregon and USC as battles the Huskies are “supposed” to win will the Washington football program have returned to Don James-era dominance.
A program might be able to raise expectations based on preseason hyping, an elite recruiting class, new coaching hires, or even a stadium renovation. But in the end, there is but one time honored, full proof method: the upset. The upset is, in my opinion, the single greatest phenomenon in sports. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, basketball, track and field, tennis, seeing a dominant team upset by an underdog is a beautiful, quintessentially American experience. Who among us doesn’t remember Erik Folk’s field goal to defeat #3 ranked USC as time expired back in 2009?
There it is. If Coach Sark truly wants his team to take the next step, they will need to take the field against either LSU, Stanford, Oregon, or USC a heavy underdog, and leave the field victorious. The Huskies have to beat favored teams so that they can become the sort of team that is favored. Realistically, I’m not sure this is the year. I would have a hard time truly predicting a win in any of these games, save perhaps against Stanford. But that is the beauty of an upset. People like me, writing preseason articles about expectations, aren’t supposed to project these wins. They are earned on the field by teams with more to give than anyone realized.
So take a moment and imagine a Husky team that takes care of business against all of the less heralded teams, including solidly talented Cal and Utah, while also managing to pull off an upset or two against the elite four mentioned earlier. That’s either 9 or 10 wins, and certainly a ranked finish. It may not be a likely scenario, but it is the next step the Huskies so desperately want to take. Here’s to hoping we get to watch them pull it off.