SEATTLE – In some fashion, Keith Price and his teammates have been reminded every day of what 2012 could have been for Washington.
The reminders showed how the Huskies were so close to taking that next step in the progression most expected when Steve Sarkisian took over, finally leaving behind the seven-win plateau, only to lose the final two games of last season by a combined five points to again finish 7-6.
"We were reminded of it every day," said Price, the Huskies' senior quarterback. "That's one of our goals this year is finishing and executing at key moments. We didn't do that last season."
Washington begins 2013 with the expectation that seven wins is no longer acceptable. This is the year the Huskies must show progress, pushing to be talked about among Stanford and Oregon as the elite of the Pac-12 North Division.
As they move back into renovated Husky Stadium, just a winning record and bowl trip are no longer good enough.
"I think there are a lot of programs in our conference that would be really happy to have gone to three bowl games in a row and finish with winning records," Sarkisian said. "I think that's acceptable. But that's not the way we're judged here, one, and that's not the way we're built here, two. We're built to win championships and we're judged on our championships."
Here are five things to watch as the Huskies get ready for their Aug. 31 opener against Boise State.
1. FIND THE KEITH PRICE WAYBACK MACHINE: Two seasons ago, Price threw more touchdown passes in one season than any other quarterback in Washington's long lineage of QBs. He played with a chip of always needing to prove that he was the correct choice in a quarterback competition with Nick Montana. That chip was gone in 2012, but it was replaced by an overwhelming burden Price felt to always be perfect. He didn't trust his offensive line and had only a couple of reliable pass-catching options. That led to poor decisions and poor play, capped by interceptions on his final passes against Washington State in the Apple Cup and Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. "I just want to get back to myself and playing the way I'm capable of playing and being better than I've ever been," Price said. Sarkisian believes the chip has returned, since so many doubt Price, and the coach believes that's good.
2. GIVE KEITH A HAND: Finding more pass-catching options for Price became more important when it was announced that third-team All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will miss an undetermined amount of time with a broken right pinkie. Last season, Price's main targets were Kasen Williams and Seferian-Jenkins. Of Price's 263 completions last season, 146 went to that duo. Washington's other wide receivers and tight ends combined for just 68 catches. Washington needs production from a group including receivers John Ross, Jaydon Mickens and DiAndre Campbell to take the load off Williams, and a tight end to emerge in the interim with Seferian-Jenkins out to give Price some help.
3. GET OUT OF THE INFIRMARY: The Huskies were plagued by injuries last season, especially on the offensive line. Four prospective offensive line starters for Washington missed all or part of the 2012 season due to various injuries. It's a wonder that running back Bishop Sankey was still able to rush for 1,439 yards, but the lack of experience and continuity on the line contributed to Price's struggles at quarterback. Fall camp didn't get off to the best start on that front with offensive lineman Erik Kohler sidelined with a foot injury. But Sarkisian noted the one advantage to all the injury problems from a year ago is the experience the Huskies now have on the offensive line.
4. LINEBACKER U: Washington has one the top linebacker groups in the Pac-12. John Timu returns for his junior season after leading the Huskies in tackles from his middle linebacker spot. He'll be flanked by a pair of talented sophomores in Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson, who both made significant contributions as freshmen. Thompson transitioned to outside linebacker as his freshman season progressed, while Feeney brought speed to the edge and proved a solid tackler. The trio will be vital in trying to slow the up-tempo spread teams that have given the Huskies problems in the past.
5. AWAKEN THE ECHOS: Husky Stadium sits on a piece of real estate unmatched in college football. And thanks to a $250 million renovation that repaired a stadium crumbling in places, the facility matches the piece of land. The season opener against Boise State will be a major test and potentially a major moment for the program. Win and the Huskies have a good shot at starting 4-0 heading into a difficult October. Lose and the grumbles from unhappy fans will only get louder.
Predicted conference finish: Third in Pac-12 North.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/