I want to look at UW football. Four weeks after their season appeared to many in big trouble at 3-4, Husky football suddenly pimpslapped then-undefeated Oregon State, went into Cal's house and beat the Bears, handily disposed of a weakish Utah squad... and suddenly they're 6-4, facing a real prospect of 8-4 and a New Year's bowl game. Not bad for a squad that wasn't sure a month ago they'd even finish .500.
Despite being the 8th best team in the Pac 12, I had no bones that the Huskies were a legit bowl-caliber FBS program (Sagarin has UW currently 34th in the country). Earlier this season I talked about the Pac 12 being one of the nation's best conferences, and UW having one of the nation's toughest schedules. That definitely hasn't changed: Sagarin currently notes the Huskies schedule as 2nd toughest in the nation and he still firmly sits the Pac 12 as the 3rd strongest conference in college football. They've done it with one of the better defenses in college football, a come-and-go running game led by Bishop Sankey and unspectacular but capable play from QB Keith Price.
There was little doubt in my mind the Huskies were one of college football's better teams despite not even being in the top half of their own conference and even while at 3-4. Husky hand wringing in Seattle amused me, given the toughness of their schedule and not their quality of play was the primary culprit for their struggles, and that an easier schedule the rest of the way indicated they would win down the stretch. I didn't expect the upset of Oregon State, granted, but I still figured they'd be a 7-5 or so team.
If anything, the Pac 12's toughness indicates that the Huskies probably don't need to book such a tough schedule in coming seasons. With a conference loaded with legit challengers, the Huskies can put a McNeese State or a UNLV (or two) on the schedule and ensure themselves a better shot at a 10-11 win season (if not a shot at a national title should things break right) without diminishing their stature via strength of schedule.
Maybe that was by design: Maybe coach Steve Sarkisian knew that with a young team of newcomers and newly minted starters that, while good, they didn't have the material to run the table and wanted to temper expectations for 2013... which wouldn't have happened if the team went 9-3 or 10-2 against a more normal schedule. If they finish that well in 2012, expectations for 2013 skyrocket: They have to at least do that well, if not compete for the national championship, or fans will be disappointed. Ask Frank Solich how well finishing "only" 9-3 did for him before that record and higher expectations got him fired from Nebraska.
Sarkisian probably had faith his team could net a bowl game against a loaded schedule, and with the team displaced from Husky Stadium during renovations, why not make this a battle-test season?
Not that this absolutely was the intent (I don't know that and am just taking a loosely educated guess), but whether or not it was by design Sarkisian has set the table for an improved Husky team to take a big step forward in 2013.
For now, UW faces a good look at 8-4 and a chance to impress at a higher profile bowl game. Given a schedule that would have crushed the average football team, as far as I'm concerned they've already had a very impressive season.