College Football Countdown: No. 24 Washington

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 24: Washington

Coach: Steve Sarkisian (19-19, fourth season)

2011 record: 7-6 (5-4 in Pac-12 Conference, third in North Division)

Look back: Washington has seen marked improvement over the past three seasons under head coach Steve Sarkisian. After suffering through six seasons of mediocrity, the program is coming off of consecutive 7-6 seasons and back-to-back bowl appearances. Expectations are running high with fans, especially with the potential of quarterback Keith Price.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/6

Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7

Key losses: TB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse, WR Devin Aguilar, LB Cort Dennison

Top returnees: QB Keith Price, DE Josh Shirley, S Sean Parker, LB Princeton Fuimaono

Strengths: In his first season as a starter, Keith Price demonstrated the potential that has made him one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch in the country. Price completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,063 yards and a school record 33 touchdowns. His mobility may have been hampered by knee problems but Price appears healthy as he heads into fall camp. … Justin Wilcox joins the coaching staff as the team’s new defensive coordinator and his first chore will be helping improve a Huskies defense that ranked next to last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (35.9 ppg) and total defense (453.3 ypg). To do that, he will need players like safety Sean Parker and cornerback Desmond Trufant to step up in the secondary. The defensive line loses two starters and will be anchored by defensive end Josh Shirley, who led the team in sacks (8.5).

Weaknesses: The departure of Chris Polk was a huge blow this offseason. Polk was a work horse with 293 carries, which ranked second in the league behind Utah’s John White, and getting that type of production from the running back position will be difficult. Sophomore Bishop Sankey (28 carries , 187 yards) and junior Jesse Callier (260 yards) will compete for the change to replace Polk. … The receiving unit took a huge hit as well with the departures of Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. The duo combined for 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (41/538/6) will be one of the main targets for Price this season with receivers Kasen Williams and James Johnson providing other options.

Outlook: A healthy Keith Price is crucial for the success of the Washington program especially with questions at running back and wide receiver. The defense gave up way too many points last season and it will be Wilcox’s job to find a way to get the most of a unit that is loaded with experience and talent. The schedule is front-loaded with games against LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC in the first half. If Washington can survive that gauntlet, the second half opens several opportunities for success.

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 San Diego State

Sept. 8 at LSU

Sept. 14 Portland State

Sept. 27 Stanford

Oct. 6 at Oregon

Oct. 13 USC

Oct. 20 at Arizona

Oct. 27 Oregon State

Nov. 2 at California

Nov. 10 Utah

Nov. 17 at Colorado

Nov. 23 at Washington State

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