In the grand scheme of things, the Huskies drought of appearances in the Grandaddy of 'em all pales in comparison to the plight of some other Pac 12 teams. With their last appearance there in 2001, the Huskies have still made a more recent appearance than seven other Pac 12 teams. Unfortunately, one of those teams is not the Washington State Cougars.
Of course, none of this matters to the rank and file Huskies fan. Trips to Pasadena in support of their beloved Dawgs is a perceived birth-right for the acolytes of the purple and gold. Only USC and Michigan have more all-time appearances than Washington's 14 trips (although Stanford now has tied that mark). A return affair to the Rose Bowl is long overdue for UW. So, the question becomes, what does UW need to do to punch their ticket back? Here are three things that have to happen if the travel agents of UW fans are to have a Merry Christmas anytime in the near future.
1. Recruit and develop, with an insane amount of bias, the D
The Huskies had a record-setting offensive campaign in 2014. In fact, by any traditional or advanced metric that a fan cares to evaluate, it wasn't even close to whichever unit you would compare it to. The 2014 Huskies offense was the best offensive unit that Washington has ever seen ... in any era. And, yet, the majority of fans were disappointed in the overall performance of the team.
It's not like the Huskies D was a slouch in 2014. In fact, the last two years have seen a resurgence in total defensive performance that exceeds the accomplishments of any defensive units that we've seen come through Montlake since before the 2000 Rose Bowl season. Still, Husky fans have an understandable bias towards defense. The best team that UW ever put together happened to sport one of the most recognized and accomplished defensive units in college football history. Their all-time greatest player, at least to many fans, was a Defensive Tackle who also happened to be the only #1 NFL Draft Pick in program history.
Husky fans expect to see excellence in Defense. And, why not? The climate in the northwest combined with the ability of UW to leverage their academics and their brand in recruiting make them a natural in attracting the best defensive talents from our pipeline regions. As has been argued here before, Chris Petersen would do well to prioritize the defensive side of the ball - even surrendering elite two way talents to the defensive side when necessary. The establishment of a Stanford style D in a Pac 12 that is increasingly emphasizing the faster-paced spread-out offenses is exactly the kind of zig strategy that UW should implement while the rest of the conference zags. It leverages our natural advantages, it motivates our fan base, and it is a proven recipe for UW to return to the Rose Bowl.
Oh, and about Shaq ... he still looks pretty damn good as a hybrid linebacker.
2. Re-establish the Offensive Line pipeline and focus on playing upperclassmen.
One reality of the 85-man scholarship limits enforced by the NCAA several years ago is the fact that it makes it virtually impossible to establish enough depth across every position grouping such that the team can withstand the occasional injury and academic non-qualifier and still be in a position to play upperclassmen across the board. At various points in the last ten years, the Huskies have suffered from these types of depth challenges in the linebacking corps, the running back corps, the defensive line and the quarterbacking unit. This year, the deficiency is in the defensive secondary.
No unit has suffered more for the Huskies over the last 10 years than the Offensive Line. From Ty Willingham through the Sark era, the Huskies whiffed on far too many offensive linemen talents in recruiting, suffered too many injuries to too many talented players that they did land and played too many unprepared underclassmen. Not surprisingly, the Huskies have been feasted on by just about every Pac 12 defensive line - good or bad - over that same period of time. Some games that come to mind as particularly egregious include the Stanford game in Seattle in 2010, the Arizona game of 2012, the WSU game of 2012 and the ASU game last season.
The Huskies cannot be the team they need to be without a durable and experienced offensive line. It isn't necessary for the team to be stocked with first-rounders across the board, but it is a requirement that the team has a bevy of physically developed and reliable players who they can draw upon in the event that an elite talent leaves a year early or injuries cut down any given starter. To get there, the Huskies have to take care to ensure that the numbers are always right in every recruiting class, even if they have to knowingly accept that some other unit may suffer a lack of depth as a result. A deep O-Line, not unlike a strong D, is in the Huskies DNA and is critical to any aspirations that the Dawgs have at making a Rose Bowl run in any given season.
3. Focus on 2015.
One of the little discussed consequences of the implementation of a football playoff system is that the Rose Bowl will not necessarily be reserved for a Pac 12 / Big 10 matchup on most years. In fact, the current system involves the "New Year's Six" bowl games (Rose, Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar, Orange, and newly renamed Peach) to rotate the semi-final matches every year. That means that the Rose Bowl - who is paired with the Sugar Bowl - will be a playoff site once every three years. Furthermore, the presence of a Pac 12 team in the Playoffs in a year that the Rose Bowl has a playoff game DOES NOT guarantee that the Pac 12 team will be in Pasadena. The Playoff Selection Committee will, in fact, be seeding the teams and making the determination of what bowls to assign the matchups on a year-to-year basis.
The Rose Bowl will be hosting a playoff game in the 2014 post-season. This means that, more than likely, the Huskies will not be going to Pasadena. While I'm a huge fan of Russell Wilson's "why not us" philosophy, the reality is that the preseason polling means that the Huskies are going to have a lot of teams to climb over in the polls in order to get into the mix. Short of running the table in Chris Petersen's first year, the Dawgs have virtually no chance of earning a playoff berth this season and, as such, should be focusing on 2015 for a Rose Bowl run.
The good news is that Bowls are all obligated to take the next best team from their traditional conference rivalries in the years that they don't host a playoff game and that their conferences' number one team(s) are in the Playoffs. This is a departure from the BCS era policy that dictated that a Bowl could select the best at-large's from the field in the event their traditional champion was en route to an alternative game. That means the Huskies could finish in first or second in the Pac 12 in 2015 and have a theoretical shot at playing in the Rose Bowl.
So, that's it. My formula for getting back to the Rose Bowl. I'm curious where each of you stand. If you could wave your magic wand and prescribe one thing that would give the UW the best chance to get over the hump and to make a push for the Rose Bowl, what would that be. Hit up our little poll and leave your comments below.