Aug. 29, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - For his third season at Washington, coach Steve Sarkisian worked with athletic director Scott Woodward to finally get the 2011 season in line with their vision for how they want Huskies' schedules to be.
They just didn't expect Eastern Washington to be coming to Husky Stadium Saturday (4 p.m. on ROOT Sports TV, the Husky IMG College radio network and with a live game chat here on GoHuskies.com) as the defending champion of the Football Championship Subdivision.
"I congratulated Coach (Beau) Baldwin when he won a national championship at the end of the year," Sarkisian said Monday of a talk he had with Eastern's coach last winter.
"And I had to remind myself that we play them at the beginning of this year."
The arrival of the high-flying, spread-and-throw Eagles for a $400,000 payday will mark the end of Washington being one of four teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have never played an FCS-level team. USC, UCLA and Notre Dame are the others.
It will also make the reality of the Huskies' schedules more conducive to winning titles inside a unique, expanded Pac-12 Conference. Sarkisian and Woodward want to maximize chances for championships by going with a more clearly tiered, "A-B-C" scheduling model than the ones from 2002-10. Those had UW playing Ohio State (twice), Notre Dame (three times), Oklahoma (twice), Boise State, Brigham Young (twice), LSU and Nebraska.
That gauntlet isn't exactly the best route to nine- or 10-win seasons. So it is that the Huskies this weekend will be hosting a Washington school not named Washington State in football for the first time since Whitman was on the schedule (twice!) - in 1944.
"It's Pac-12 football," Sarkisian said. "Really for us, you are talking a nine-game conference schedule. We are the only conference in the country (along with the Big 12, which is now starting it this season) that does that.
"The reality of it is you look at our conference the last two years, we haven't filled our bowl slots."
Yet it's not like the Huskies are suddenly in marshmallow mania, scheduling-wise. After all, EWU is the cream of the FCS crop. And the Huskies go to Nebraska Sept. 17. Next year they have a return date at LSU. They host Boise State to open renovated Husky Stadium at the start of 2013. Add conference foes Oregon and Stanford, and that's five opponents that are in the current top 10.
Plus, defending Big Ten-champion Wisconsin is on upcoming schedules in a home-and-home series. So is Illinois.
Actually, Washington is getting its schedule aligned onto the path that every one of nation's top programs has taken recently to become elite.
Each of the teams that finished the 2010 season in The Associated Press top 10 have played multiple FCS (formerly Division I-AA) opponents since 2002. Defending national champion Auburn has been playing them for in eight of the last nine years, including Chattanooga last season.
Oregon's win over Portland State last September was the Ducks' fourth game against an FCS foe since '02. Boise State has had six lower-division foes in that span.
Texas Christian and Wisconsin, which met in January's Rose Bowl, have played FCS teams nine times between them since 2002. When LSU won the national title in 2003, it beat Western Illinois along the way. The Tigers have played four other FCS teams in the last nine seasons.
Florida beat Western Carolina in 2006 and The Citadel in '08 on its way to a national championship in each of those seasons. Alabama beat Chattanooga in 2009 before winning that season's BCS title game.
"And so I think you are seeing that trend occur more now where teams are willing to play FCS schools and not to guarantee a win per se, but just not to be so beat up," Sarkisian said. "You go and play a top-tier Big Ten team, a top-tier Big 12 team, a top-tier SEC team, and maybe it may not be so much that game alone but a factor of what it can do to your roster moving forward and guys getting beat up.''
Speaking of beat up, Sarkisian hopes to know by Wednesday whether tailback Chris Polk (knee), cornerback Quinton Richardson (ankle) and reserve tailback Johri Fogerson (hip) will be able to play against Eastern Washington.
Polk ran on the side without shoulder pads on and walked the stadium steps with Fogerson during Monday's practice, while Richardson and the rest of the team drilled on the field in shoulder pads and shorts. Richardson practiced for the first time since he sprained his ankle Aug. 13.
The status of Polk, the 1,400-yard rusher last season who had arthroscopic surgery Aug. 18, and Fogerson in particular leave the coaching staff juggling decisions on whether to redshirt true freshman running back Bishop Sankey. Sankey and sophomore Jesse Callier, in the lead role while Polk has been out, are the only top backs fully healthy.
Sarkisian said that doesn't mean he will rush Polk back this week, or any time soon.
"This is not just about Saturday," the coach said. "This is about October, November as well."
QUICK HITS: The week-one depth chart had junior James Johnson, set back by injuries last season, atop one of three WR spots. "He's earned it," Sarkisian said. "I think he had a tremendous training camp. But ... you're going to see all six of those (wide) receivers in the first quarter of this ball game on Saturday." ... New starting OLB John Timu showed his athleticism from being a high school QB and S again on Monday, tipping and then intercepting a pass during team drills and sprinting the other way for a long return. ... Sarkisian said he hopes to redshirt versatile senior WR Cody Bruns this season "for a lot of reasons ... some personal, some strategic on our part." The coach said it would be great to have Bruns lead a deep but generally young unit in 2012, when UW will lose seniors Jermaine Kearse Devin Aguilar. William Chandler is the new holder on field goals and extra-point kicks to begin this season. Bruns did that and many other things last season.