"It's about time to get back to the Rose Bowl, to Pac-10 championships, competing for a national championship, that's our goal, no question ... I can't wait to get this thing going."
So spoke Steve Sarkisian at his Dec. 8, 2008, news conference announcing his hiring as UW’s 23rd football coach. In the wake of the 2008 debacle that resulted in an 0–12 record and Ty Willingham’s dismissal, those words were a tonic to the wounded egos of countless Husky fans; almost five years later, however, three consecutive seven-win seasons have left those same fans wondering if Sark possesses the ability to transform a good team into a great one.
It's a question that — for better or worse — will be settled this year, if the preseason talk about the Dawgs can be believed. Media prognosticators point to Washington's experienced offensive line, a fifth-year quarterback in Keith Price, a bell cow running back in Bishop Sankey and future NFL draft picks in Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and do-everything defender Shaq Thompson as reasons to believe that UW will finally crest that pesky seven-win hump. Sark himself has made references to last year's team as one that believes itself to have been a nine-win team that let the final two contests of the season slip away. In his mind, then, nine wins in 2013 isn't improvement — it's treading water.
Beliefs aside, though, Sarkisian is just a hair above .500 as a head coach, with a record that stands at 26-25. The key to improving that record lies with Washington's ability to win games on the road — since Sark took over in 2009, Washington is an impressive 18-7 on their home turf, but just 8-18 away from Seattle. Sark himself addressed this deficiency at Pac-12 Media Day, saying that
The real issue for us to continue to improve as a program is to maintain that at home and keep that edge that we have at home, but how do we bottle up that energy, that enthusiasm, that execution, that fight, that want-to and take it on the road with us and play that way [on the road].
One accomplishment that Sarkisian takes great pride in is Washington's status as one of only three conference teams, along with Pac-12 powerhouses Stanford and Oregon, to play in the postseason during each of the last three seasons. The benefits of that accomplishment aren't just bragging rights, either: each team that plays in a bowl game is allotted an additional 15 practices during the winter, which coaches of all stripes have described as being invaluable to the development of younger players. One such youngster who might benefit from that extra development is sophomore Dwayne Washington, who was recruited as a receiver but moved to tailback during the practices leading up to the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. (No less a figure than Husky legend and current quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo described the 6-1, 205 lb. running back as "Napoleon Kaufman-esque.") Of course, the ultimate goal of a postseason game is notching a win, and Sark is a pedestrian 1-2 in his trips to the Holiday, Alamo and Las Vegas bowls — much too small of a sample size to draw meaningful conclusions, but something that no doubt makes Husky fans uneasy.
Perhaps the one area of Sark's tenure that most excites Washington fans is his and his youthful coaching staff's performance on the recruiting trail. Discounting the 2009 recruiting class, which was cobbled together in a few short weeks following his hiring, each of Sark's recruiting classes have ranked in the nation's top 25, according to Scout.com. One reason that Washington seems to be perpetually young is that each year — not to put too fine a point on it — UW has brought in young players who are better than the upperclassmen who are already on the team. Washington's 2013 recruiting class, for example, included highly regarded players like WRs Damore'ea Stringfellow and John Ross, who would threaten to seize playing time at virtually any program in the nation. The ability of the players already in the program to head off freshmen challengers in the years to come is the only way that the team will be able to feature upper-classmen starters, though UW fans will no doubt want to have their cake (in the form of top-15 recruiting classes) and eat it too (starting 15-18 juniors and seniors each year).
It's not an exaggeration to say that Washington stands upon a precipice at the opening of the 2013 season. If everything falls the right way, the Dawgs are looking at double-digit wins for the first time since the 2000 season. On the other hand, if UW loses all of their 50-50 games, they'll be fighting for bowl eligibility in November, and Sark's seat in 2014 will be among the nation's hottest. Washington has all the tools to make the 2013 season special; all that remains is for them to claim it and return UW to the national conversation. For Husky fans who once expected nothing less, that time can't come soon enough.