Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Steve Sarkisian and the Cutcliffe Corollary

When new college coaches step into a job with a struggling program coming off multiple losing seasons, media types like me enjoy saying that “Coach X is inheriting a bare cupboard.” This essentially means that there is no talent and no existing on-field resources to work with and the new coach will have to totally rebuild the program from the ground up. That type of situation is what David Cutcliffe inherited when he accepted the head coaching job at Ole Miss in 1998. Cutcliffe immediately turned Ole Miss around and pumped out five consecutive winning seasons including a share of the SEC West title with National Champion LSU in 2003. But Rebel fans quickly got tired of being just a winning team and either rationally or irrationally depending on your point of view, began demanding further improvement and BCS bowls.

When Ole Miss limped to a 4-7 season in 2004, Cutcliffe didn’t get a second chance to take a mulligan year and was ousted with a 44-29 record in six seasons. David Cutcliffe became a victim of his own raised expectations and inspired what I call the Cutcliffe Corollary. The Cutcliffe Corollary states “If a coach turns a terrible program around and puts together consistent winning seasons, he is fired if he doesn’t take the next step even though he is a proven winner.” The Cutcliffe Corollary has already claimed the careers of coaches like Jeff Tedford, Mike Stoops, Houston Nutt (Arkansas version), and Mario Cristobal among others.

Well, in 2009 Steve Sarkisian walked into the ultimate bare cupboard situation when he accepted the head coach position at the University of Washington. The Huskies were coming off the only 0-12 season in FBS history that ended with favored coaching punch line Ty Willingham getting fired. Sarkisian came in with bluster as the Offensive Coordinator at USC, heralded as a great tutor of Quarterbacks, an effective play-caller, and an inspired recruiter. Coach Sark did a great job out of the gates, taking what was essentially the same team that will go down as one of the worst ever assembled and winning five games in 2009.

Sarkisian continued the upward trend in 2010 as the Huskies had its first winning season since 2002 and staked a program defining win over then-number 16 Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Things were looking up for Washington, Jake Locker was drafted in the top 10, administration had dropped millions to pull heralded defensive coordinator Nick Holt away from USC (Oh I’ll get to him), and Sarkisian looked like one of the hottest young coaches in college football, turning down multiple overtures from other programs to stay put in Seattle and signing a new contract that raised his salary from $1.75 million to $2.25 million. The Huskies had gone from dead last in the Pac-10, to seventh in his first year and then tied for third in his second year. The proud and historic Washington Huskies were on the way back from dormancy and Sarkisian was going to led them to the promise land and become the next Don James. Then something funny happened…the progress stopped.

The Huskies came into the 2011 season with a talented new QB in Keith Price, all-conference tailback Chris Polk, a deep group of receivers and allegedly, a lot of quality talent on defense which was going to lead the Huskies further up the Pac-12 ladder and finally end the Huskies seven game losing streak to the hated Oregon Ducks and replace Phil Knight’s Nike fueled scoring machine atop the conference.

The high hopes for the Huskies offense panned out, Priced set a new school record for touchdowns in a single season as Washington averaged 33.4 points per game and finished 38th in the country in total offense. However, the Huskies defense was a complete travesty, surrendering 30+ points eight times low-lighted by 777 yards and 67 points to Robert Griffin III and Baylor in the Alamo Bowl as the Huskies once again finished 7-5 and failed to advance up the conference ladder. The once heralded and celebrated Nick Holt had proven to be a total fraud, more famous for cussing out his players in public rather than making good defensive play calls. Holt was ousted and the Huskies pulled a nice coup when it pulled Justin Wilcox from Tennessee.

Last year, the defense still wasn’t very good but it drastically improved and allowed 24.2 points per game, an 11.7 point improvement. The problem for Washington last year was actually with its supposedly great offense. Despite having the most talented TE in the country in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a 1400 yard rusher in in Bishop Sankey, and a talented group of receivers led by talented freshman Kasen Williams the offense, and more specifically Price, regressed. Washington dropped to 98th in total offense and went from 33.4 ppg to 24. Price dropped from 3063 yards, 33 touchdowns, and a 66.9 completion percentage to 2728 yards, 19 touchdowns (woof), and 60.9% completions. Price’s QB Rating dropped almost 39 points. Apparently when Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier bolted for Alabama he took Price’s spirit with him and had it inhabit AJ McCarron leaving a mediocre QB masquerading in Keith Price’s body.

A third straight 7-5 season and Price’s struggles raised questions about Steve Sarkisian’s abilities as a coach. Sarkisian will have to deal with those questions all season until he delivers an answer one way or another. Price is back as a fifth year senior surrounding by Seferian-Jenkins (although his status is somewhat uncertain at the moment), Williams, Sankey, and four returning starters on the offensive line as well as a new up-tempo system means the Huskies should produce. That’s the good news for Sarkisian, the bad news is that he is left as the only excuse if the offense and more specifically Price flop again. If Price puts up more poor numbers with all the talent around him, Sarkisian will have to take the fall.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll lose his job though. Washington could use the running game, a further improved defense, and timely deep passes to win eight games, although given the schedule that isn’t likely. The Huskies have Boise State to open the season which is always a risky proposition since week one is usually the only game Boise has to show up for and play well in order to make a BCS game. The Huskies have a road game at Illinois which granted is not a very good team but go ask a similarly constructed Arizona State team how that road trip went in 2011. After a difficult non-conference schedule, the Huskies begin arguably the toughest conference draw out of all 12 teams. The Huskies, a very poor road team under Sarkisian, must play at Stanford, ASU, UCLA, and Oregon St., four of the top six or seven teams in the conference. Add in the Oregon and BSU games at home and that could easily be six losses right there.

I can only find three guaranteed wins on UW’s schedule: Idaho State, Colorado, and WSU. I’m willing to project at Illinois, Arizona, and Cal as victories although I think there is a very realistic possibility of the Huskies losing those games. I don’t see any way Washington can beat Stanford or Oregon and I’m convinced they won’t beat UCLA although I admit UW has a chance in that game. That leaves three games that will ultimately decide Washington’s season and Sarkisian’s tenure in Seattle; Aug.31 vs. Boise St., Oct.19 at ASU, and Nov.23 at OSU. If Washington wins two or three of those games, UW meets expectations and Sarkisian is safe. However, two or three losses in those games and Sarkisian might be out, ushering in even more upheaval and turnover in Seattle.

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