As I have traveled the UW message boards, there seems to be a vocal contingent of people who are frustrated that the Huskies aren't prohibitive favorites to win the Pac-12, or at least compete for an at large BCS berth. That might be exaggerating, but I have definitely seen people grumbling that by Year 4 of the Sark Era the Huskies aren't a dead solid lock for bowl eligibility. I share that frustration to a certain degree, what I don't share is the total disregard of the facts that many of them have displayed when airing their grievances.
The most common flashpoint is the issue of the youth of the team. What the grumblers like to call "an excuse", I tend to regard as an immutable facet of reality. The fact is, this team is quite young…again.
Per the indispensable Bob Condotta, here are the way scholarship players break down right now:
I don't know what the average class distribution looks like among FBS programs, but I am willing to make an educated guess that the UW is substantially younger than average. Ideally, I'd like to see how the numbers of scholarship players break down by years in the program, but that is a lot of effort to go to and this is close enough for government unpaid blogging work. The way I look at it, this means that 56 of 84 scholarship players haven't even completed their third year in the program. That's two thirds of the team. That's young.
A counterpoint is that USC is a young team and conventional wisdom has the Trojans as BCS bound and possibly a candidate to play for the BCS Championship. Sadly, this isn't some strawman that I have created to pummel into submission; I've seen it brought up more than once.
I'd say that is comparing apples and oranges, but it is probably more like apples and orangutans.
The simple fact is that while USC is young, the older players they have on their team are A LOT more talented than our older players, and there are more of them. Further, the younger players on USC's team are at least moderately more talented than our younger players.
It was tedious, but I went through the rosters of both USC and UW and looked at 4th and 5th year players. I excluded kicking specialists and walk-ons, but included JC transfers based on when they graduated from HS.
USC is a young team, but still has 15 4th and 5th year players on the roster. By my count, UW has 11.
Let's look at the tale of the tape (all player ratings from Scout database):
Three five stars
Seven four stars
Four three stars
One two star
Average: 3.8 stars
Median: 4 stars
One four star
Eight three stars
Two two stars
Average: 2.9 stars
Median: 3 stars
If anything, the quantitative approach understates the disparity in the talent and skill of these two groups of players. Trufant and Price are the only stars in this group for UW. Tokolahi and Jam
es Johnson are both nice players who have been hurt way too much. Glenn has been banged up too. Drew Shaeffer has been rock solid.
USC has two All American type talents in Barkley and TJ McDonald and a returning 1,000 yard back in Curtis McNeal, as well as several other multi-year starters out of their group.
The above players are from the classes of 2008 and 2009.
Let's just take a quick look at how the more recent recruiting classes have been evaluated:
USC: 4.15 stars average, 7 Top 100 Players
UW: 3.13 stars average, 2 Top 100 Players
USC: 3.37 stars average, 4 Top 100 Players
UW: 3.08 stars average, 2 Top 100 Players
USC: 3.80 stars average, 5 Top 100 Players
UW: 2.96 stars average, 1 Top 100 Player
None of this means we can't potentially beat USC. But it does rather neatly explain the difference in expectations between the two squads.
I don't have the energy to do a similar comparison with Oregon, but I doubt it would be a lot prettier. The Huskies would probably be a bit closer in perceived overall talent, but at a significantly greater disadvantage in terms of aggregate experience.
None of this is meant to excuse poor play. I expect the Huskies to improve this year. But improvement doesn't always equal more wins. The schedule is...challenging. Given the youth on the team, I expect the season to be a bit up and down. Is it possible that this year is a real breakout season for the Huskies? Sure, it's possible, but the depth chart and schedule point to 2013 as a more likely year for Sark to deliver on his prediction that he and his staff can "win big" in Seattle.
From my perspective, over the next two regular seasons the Huskies ought to have a record of something close to 17-7. I am less concerned about how the wins are distributed between this year and next than I am in continuing to see real progress. One tangible sign of progress would be not getting blown out by the tougher teams on our schedule. I can't take the Dawgs being the victim of any more ritual vivisections.