Huskies have a tough four-game stretch

SEATTLE — With poll season nearly in full bloom, the University of Washington football team has a significant opportunity to improve its national popularity rating over the coming month.

And the Huskies won’t even have to leave the West Coast to do it.

UW (2-1) will follow this Saturday’s bye with four consecutive games against nationally-ranked opponents, beginning with a Sept. 27 date with new No. 9 Stanford.

It’s a stretch the Huskies saw coming well before the season began, with annual Pacific-12 Conference heavyweights Stanford, Oregon and USC facing the Huskies in consecutive games. No. 22 Arizona, one of the bigger surprises of the early college season, awaits on Oct. 20.

Once considered a fringe top-25 team, UW fell off the national map after a humbling, 41-3 loss at LSU 10 days ago. All it would take is an upset of high-rising Stanford, the Pac-12’s suddenly resurgent power, to bring the Huskies back.

UW coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday that he enjoyed watching Stanford’s upset of national title favorite USC on Saturday, even though his job now is to figure out a way to stop the Cardinal in nine days.

“It was an exciting game, a good game for our conference,” Sarkisian said Monday afternoon. “Stanford is a big, physical team that’s going to run the football and defend the run.”

Of course, Sarkisian didn’t need to watch the USC game to learn that. The Cardinal have used a power run game to bowl over UW in each of the past three seasons, winning those three games by a total margin of 105 points. Stanford racked up 446 rushing yards in last year’s meeting — a 65-21 rout — and rendered NFL No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck into the role of a spectator for 60 minutes.

Seeing Luck play on Sundays won’t necessarily aid the Huskies’ hopes next week, and any thoughts that the Cardinal might be in a rebuilding year — the team also lost two all-conference offensive lineman to the NFL draft — were dashed when Stanford knocked off second-ranked USC on Saturday.

That game marks the Huskies’ first step into a lion’s den of opponents, with a trip to No. 3 Oregon on tap for the following weekend. USC, having fallen all the way to No. 13 after the Stanford loss, will be in Seattle for an Oct. 13 game, with a trip to Arizona next up for the Huskies.

It’s not the easiest way to open Pac-12 play, but the Huskies will at least learn a lot about themselves over the next month.

Sarkisian hopes that a few added players from injury — he, of course, wasn’t naming names Monday — could help his team during the upcoming stretch. He also liked the way his team looked during a Monday morning meeting, with a renewed sense of confidence after Saturday’s blowout win over Portland State.

But that confidence could take a serious hit over the next month if UW can’t come up with an upset or two over the best teams that the Pac-12 has to offer.

“We (start Pac-12 play with) the three teams that have had the best record in our conference the last four years,” Sarkisian said Monday. “I’m hopeful we get some of these guys back that haven’t been able to play for us.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to play a nationally-televised game on a Thursday night with the entire country watching and our fans rocking and rolling. … But we’ve got quite a bit of time before that moment.”

The bye week will give UW a little extra prep time before the Huskies’ toughest stretch of the season. The start of UW’s Pac-12 schedule has been a hot topic since the beginning of the summer, and now the Huskies have a chance to prove their mettle.

And maybe win a few votes along the way.

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