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Will the Washington Huskies Become Bowl Eligible in 2015?

With two "must have" wins off of the table, the path to bowl eligibility is not so clear for Washington.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This editorial was originally conceived as a piece focusing on what Steve Sarkisian did or did not do to help resurrect a UW team that, when he inherited it, could only dream of bowl eligibility.  But with losses to "pivot" games against both Boise State and Cal, we have a much more pressing issue to discuss:  Will the Huskies even become bowl eligible this season?

It's hard to believe that it was only seven seasons ago where we, as a disenchanted fanbase, only wished to see UW get back to the point where they could compete to get to six wins.  Thanks to Coach Sark and his penchant for doing one better and getting us to seven each year, the Husky fan base has become accustomed to bowl eligibility.  We see it as almost a given not unlike I-5 traffic.  It's always there for us.  We just need to get in our car, turn on ESPN radio and drive to it.

In fact, there was a point in the not too distant past where fans were thinking that the Huskies would be a more serious contender for higher tier bowls at this point in their trajectory.  Talents like Cyler Miles, Demore'ea Stringfellow, John Ross and Dexter Charles were supposed to be at the heart of a program that was ascending to the upper levels of the PAC.  But a coaching disruption, some unfortunate injuries and some predictable player transitions have laid waste to those hopes and dreams.

This is a Huskies team in the midst of an unexpected rebuild and now confronted with the very real possibility of missing out on post-season eligibility for the first time since Sark's first season as UW's head coach.

You can debate until your faces turn blue - and many of you have - whether or not Chris Petersen needed to embark upon a full tear down and rebuild of the Washington program.  That discussion will continue in perpetuity, or until UW ever again beats Oregon ... whichever comes first (heck, I'd take simply beating a winning Power 5 team - a feat not yet accomplished by Petersen and his staff).  The point of this article is to break down what it might take to get UW bowl eligible.

At 2-2, Washington needs to find four more wins in it's eight remaining games to reach bowl eligibility.  It's fine to say "hey, I think there are four more wins out there" and, who knows, you might be right.  But a careful look at the schedule and the nature of the opponents left makes the exercise of finding those four wins a little more difficult to complete.

ESPN's FPI-based win probabilities are noted in the table below:

Opponent Win Probability
@ #17 USC 6.20%
vs Oregon 44.40%
@ #16 Stanford 11.50%
vs Arizona 62.20%
vs #5 Utah 31.80%
@ Arizona State 30.70%
@ Oregon State 70.80%
vs Washington State 80.30%

The win probability is a calculation derived from a composite ranking of each opponent remaining on UW's schedule.  It is derived from ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) which attempts to rank each team in the nation based on their overall efficiency.  In essence, it tries to determine what constitutes and "exactly average" team looks like and the it measures how your team would fare against that team on a point differential basis if they played on a neutral field.

Based on this analysis, UW would barely miss bowl eligibility.  FPI projects UW to finish with "5.4" wins versus "6.6" losses.  In fact, by losing to Cal - a team that, at the time, they had just shy of a 50% chance of beating - UW missed it's best chance at netting their sixth win per this analysis.

So, where does that leave UW?  Do the Huskies have a chance at a bowl eligibility or will Chris Petersen post the most disappointing season at UW since Ty Willingham was let go?

Going on what we know now about both UW and their opponents, I'd say that six wins is still very possible, but it all pivots on UW doing something that they have failed to do in the Chris Petersen era:  beat a Pac 12 team with a winning record.  In fact, they'll probably have to beat two, if not three.

Must Wins:  @Oregon State, Washington State

These are non-negotiable, but not slam dunks.  Non-negotiable because asking UW to find three wins against winning PAC 12 programs might be a bit unrealistic for a team that has depth issues on the offensive line, a rookie QB and below average wide receiver play.  Without the ability to regularly put points on the scoreboard, UW could lose to anybody, even if all we are talking about is a random pick six or special teams score as the difference.  In addition, we know that WSU still has a potent offense and that Oregon State is a team on the rise.  To simply chalk either up as a win right now would be presumptuous.  That said, they are not negotiable if the goal is to figure out UW's path to bowl eligibility.

Next Tier:  Oregon, @Arizona State, Arizona

This is where things start to get a little tricky.  UW must find two wins - if not three -  among three opponents that they've had a devil of a time (pun intended) competing with over the past several years.  The good news is that two of these games are at Husky Stadium.  The bad news is that the most "winnable" opponent is on the road.

The best chance that UW might have to pick up an unexpected win is Oregon.  It is hard to fathom that statement as I just typed it given the absolute dominance that Oregon has exerted over the Huskies over the past 11 years.  However, this Ducks team is rudderless on offense as they get nothing from their QB and have the softest secondary in all of the PAC.  You can't consider UW a favorite here because, let's face it, the Ducks simply have more talent - particularly in how their rushing attack is constructed.  However, this is a team that UW matches up well against.  The depth of UW's front seven won't be as prone to fatigue as past UW defenses and Jake Browning has demonstrated an ability to pick apart soft zones.

Arizona would be the next best opportunity for no other reason than the fact that UW will likely catch them without Scooby Wright and, quite possibly, without Anu Solomon.  Again, matchups for UW are favorable if the offensive opponent is more of a sideline to sideline type of team.   It's not clear that UW could muster up enough offense even still, but the opportunity would be there.

Under normal circumstances, the best chance of a win in this group might be against Arizona State.  This is a team, after all, that is quite prone to making mistakes on offense and whose defense has been burned by many explosive plays this year.  However, UW's freshman QB won't have seen the kind of pressures that ASU is going to throw at them nor has any perimeter playmaker emerged that would be cause for Todd Graham to be concerned.  The fact that this game is in Tempe makes a tough task even tougher and win even less likely.

Upside:  @ USC, @ Stanford, Utah

As the FPI analysis indicates, a road win by UW over either of USC or Stanford seem to be quite unlikely.  Not impossible, mind you.  Both teams have their weaknesses.  USC is explosive on offense, but can be prone to making major mistakes with both turnovers and penalties.  In addition, they have some exposure along their defensive line.  Stanford has similar depth issues on their defensive line and is less explosive on offense.  UW doesn't matchup against either team and each would have to suffer something uncharacteristic in order for UW to pull one of those out.

The home affair against Utah might be the one game that is misrepresented by the FPI analysis.  On paper, it doesn't look good for UW.  Any game involving our offensive line going against a plus front seven is one that UW doesn't matchup well in.  However, the one thing UW might have going for it in this one might be in how its defense makes Utah one-dimensional as a rushing team.  Travis Wilson isn't the kind of QB who can kill you with efficient passing like a Cody Kessler or Kevin Hogan can.  In addition, he simply doesn't have the same kind of receiving threats that those other teams have.  UW could keep a game like this - likely to be played in miserable Northwest weather - close enough that the outcome could hinge on a special teams play or an extra possession gained on a turnover.  Unfortunately, Utah's special teams are at least equal to, if not better, than UW's.  So an outright win is hard to project.  But a puncher's chance exists.

The bottom line here is that there are enough opportunities here for UW to find the two wins that would need to be paired with the "must haves" that six is possible if not likely.  Arizona and Oregon look to be decent opportunities to find those two wins, but both Utah and @Arizona State remain as possibilities that fans can't write off if the one or both of the first two don't pan out.  Of course, all of this hinges on UW banking two wins against @Oregon State and Washington State - their last two games on the schedule.

That scheduling quirk ought to keep fans in their seats until the very end.