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Originally published Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

It's too early to sink Huskies' football chances

The Washington Huskies are picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 football conference, but unless the prognosticators are getting unprecedented access to coach Tyrone Willingham's infamous closed practices, they're making a blind guess about this mysterious team.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Skim the preseason predictions, and you're left to conclude Washington should bypass this college football season and march straight toward the guillotine.

In general, prognosticators believe the Huskies will win between three and five games and finish about eighth in the Pac-10. If that happens, UW President Mark Emmert will press the eject button on Tyrone Willingham's hot seat, and the program will be looking for its fifth coach since 1998.

But let's ditch the gloom today. Look at enough of those magazines, from Athlon to Sports Illustrated, and you must wonder how the fortune tellers can be so certain the Huskies will be that bad.

Unless they're getting unprecedented access to Willingham's infamous closed practices, they're making a blind guess about this mysterious team.

Considering the common elements used to create expectations — last season's record, returning starters, experience, strength of schedule — there's no way the Huskies can garner hype. Still, it would be unwise to rule out a return to relevance this season.

It would be unwise to mark up the schedule with losses before seeing this team play. It would be unwise to disregard quarterback Jake Locker's talent, or new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell's potential impact, or even the natural progression of a program in a head coach's fourth year.

Those factors are largely immeasurable, and if you're playing the odds on a prediction, it's probably best to put the Huskies near the cellar and take your chances.

If your heart lies with the Huskies program, however, that's not an option. So in the search for hope, you must cling to the unknown.

In this case, it's much more promising than conventional wisdom.

The Huskies are green? No, they're refreshing.

They're unproven? No, they're a blank canvas, teeming with possibility.

They're burdened by win-or-else pressure? No, they're united because they can only trust each other.

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The season can go either way with this team.

Every year, some team defies its low expectations. And isn't it about time the Huskies enjoyed a year in which luck tilts their way?

Consider the small margin between good and bad in football. Last season, the Huskies finished with a miserable 4-9 record while playing a schedule so tough it would've made USC groan. It was a bad year because the Huskies lost three winnable games (Arizona, Washington State and Hawaii) in the fourth quarter. With a better defense and better game management, the Huskies would've had a winning season. Now, 7-6 wouldn't have been a record to boast about, but it would've shown tangible progress.

Let's not underestimate what it takes to win those games. Many losing teams lament their near victories. The majority of football games swing on three or four plays. But the point is that, while this season presents another daunting schedule, the handful of games against manageable competition will define this season.

Washington State, Arizona and Stanford could determine the Huskies' success as much as USC, Oklahoma and Arizona State.

It means there is daylight for optimistic thought.

The Huskies face an improbable challenge, not an impossible one. At times, they will have to play above themselves, but not out of their minds. If this team can rise mentally from the rut of losing, it has a chance to surprise.

As he began the preseason, Willingham referred to the benefits of a young, unburdened team and mentioned this group could have more passion than we've seen. He daydreamed about having a group of players that played "like their hair is on fire."

He might get that from this team. The talent of these players and the commitment they've made could overshadow their lack of experience. Even as they limp through this preseason, there's reason to hope that this new outfit, this unknown outfit, will be more thrilling than previous Willingham teams.

But for that to happen, the Huskies must do something extraordinary to start the season. They must find a way to win two of their first three games against well-regarded foes Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma.

So, can the Huskies go to Autzen Stadium and beat the Ducks to open the season? They've had an entire offseason to prepare. They're catching a transitioning team at the right time. A tough task, but it's a must.

If they win the opener, perhaps momentum carries them past BYU at home. Although BYU is expected to contend for a BCS bowl, they're still a Mountain West Conference team visiting a Pac-10 school. Any Pac-10 squad with bowl aspirations has to win that game. Imagine a scenario similar to when Boise State visited Husky Stadium last season.

With that kind of start, the Huskies would have enough confidence to spur them toward a seven- or eight-win season. Without it, the prognosticators would be much closer to genius.

This season won't be without its drama. Don't skip to the end just yet. Don't reveal your list of Willingham successors just yet.

We have no idea how bad — or good — these Huskies will be. For once, the unknown is a blessing.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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