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Suddenly, UW's Prospects Look More Bright in a Conference Gone Wild

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UW - along with just about everybody else - looks like a contender in the suddenly chaotic PAC 12.

Is Shaq the future of college football?
Is Shaq the future of college football?
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Let me keep this short and sweet.  The only thing that we can take as a fact coming from one of the most anarchistic weekends in PAC 10/12 history is that just about everybody still has a chance to win it.

Including your Washington Huskies.

Don't take this as a homerish prognostication. Don't even take it as "here is the script" type of piece.  I'm not that foolish.  However, I do sense that things have changed in this conference. I was starting to suspect it at the beginning of the season, but it is becoming more clear to me now.  The tides are shifting in this conference and your Washington Huskies appear to have the wind at their backs.

Three years ago, the prescription for winning the conference was either to copy Oregon's offense or to be Stanford. There really wasn't any other approach and you saw how most teams handled it.  Five coaches with offensive pedigrees came on board in Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Mike McIntyre, Todd Graham (yes, I know that he's a "D" guy ...uhhh, yah) and Sonny Dykes. Incumbents like Steve Sarkisian and Kyle Whittingham began increasing their tempos and installing schemes to "pressure defenses". Everybody started recruiting multi-tool quarterbacks, and consulting game-science gurus. Overwhelmingly, the conference began to emulate the Oregon model.

But, all the while, something else was being paid attention by a few programs. Stanford had already demonstrated that big, tall 3-man defensive fronts can help control the gaps that all the spread variations try to exploit. Stanford and various SEC teams also demonstrated the importance of not only getting the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball (to combat the wear from an up tempo pace and to maximize versatility when substitutions cannot be made) but also in drilling with obsessive focus the idea of "eye discipline" and doing only your job so as to make it harder on offensive players to make the on-the-fly decisions that are the major weak point of these various new offenses. Some programs were beginning to crack the code and implement strategies to emulate not only Oregon, but also defensively minded approaches like Stanford.

During this time, advanced stats nerds were emerging from the shadows and hitting the mainstream. They were screaming about the importance of things like field position, turnover margin, explosive plays, and efficiency.  They also started teaching us about decision-making sciences. And not just on offense. They breathed new life into the importance AND appropriate use of special teams, at least to the minority of coaches that were listening.  For them, there was an impact.  Two point conversion options became part of the point-after approach.  Punters were reborn as athletes who had multiple styles to fit the situation and who could convert a fake. Starters were reinserted into coverage units.  Place kicking became a scholarship again.  All of this was happening with the minority of teams that were paying attention.

Fortunately for all of us, Steve Sarkisian was buying in to this renaissance, even if he didn't fully understand it. Justin Wilcox came on board with his SEC pedigree, installed a 3 man front, installed his best athletes in at linebacker, and started emphasizing length at all levels in his recruiting. Chris Petersen came on board, picked up those pieces and started working on the finer details of execution, both on D and in special teams.  The idea being built upon at Montlake right now is one that emphasizes stopping offenses, creating extra possessions and creating high percentage scoring opportunities. An old idea that all of a sudden is new ... and modernized with today's new athletes in mind.

Everything is coming together in 2014 for a shifting of the sands.  With everybody eating each other with their out of this galaxy offenses, it is becoming more intuitional that the last teams standing will be the teams that can challenge more consistently those wild offenses and then create scoring opportunities for themselves through turnovers and field position.  In the PAC, the teams that are demonstrating those traits most consistently so far are Stanford, Utah, UCLA and, yup, UW.

Each of those teams has a fatal flaw, mind you. Stanford, Utah and UW both have major QB questions. UCLA has a woeful OLine. These are real issues.  But they are also manageable issues when all the other differentiators on these teams are considered. They all have the ability to mount a pass rush.  They all generate turnovers.  They all are reliable in punting and kicking.  They all have shown the ability to generate a timely offensive big play. They all have elite kick/punt returners.

It's hard to make any predictions about how this dumpster fire will eventually burn out. However, we've seen the offense-oriented teams struggle with consistency, in particular when they've failed to protect the ball or when they've worn out their own defenses with their pace of play.  Even the undefeated Arizona struggled with Cal and UTSA in this regard.  This isn't to say that the teams I noted before have been pillars of consistency. But, have any of them been blown out?  Have any of them gotten so sideways in any game so far that they needed to resort to things like Hail Mary's or 600 yard passing games to get back in a game?  I don't think so.

After a bloodletting in the Top 25, I noted on Twitter that this feels like the year that CFB defenses have started to meaningfully catch up to the offensive innovations that we've seen over the last 10 years. Perhaps the next ten years will be about excellence in execution in all three phases and playing offense in a way that doesn't unnecessarily expose your defense (do you hear me Cal and WSU?).  Perhaps that future starts this year.  Perhaps in the PAC.  Perhaps even with your Washington Huskies.