BY Art Thiel 04:26PM 12/28/2011

Thiel: Bowl not about outcome, it’s the future

New revenues and new stadium are part of a potential Washington football renaissance that would be enhanced if Chris Polk stayed for another season. Watch how he’s used in Alamo Bowl.

Most think the Alamo Bowl will be the last Washington game for Chris Polk. But what if the game is part of a plan to bring him back? / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

SAN ANTONIO — One of the least-articulated reasons many BCS football coaches embrace the bowl system is because the games are one-and-done.

It’s a showoff game, not a playoff game. Each team wants to win, but there’s no substantive consequence to losing. When can a beleaguered coach find such a break in the regular season? Almost never.

That’s why most coaches look upon the growing public demand for a playoff system as they would a rattlesnake coiled on the doorstep.

Most ideas offered for a playoff format wouldn’t much affect the second- and third-tier bowls such as the Alamo, which hosts Baylor (9-3) and Washington (7-5) at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Alamodome. The minimal nature of the threat doesn’t matter to most coaches, who don’t want anything to compromise the sweetness of semi-meaningless showoff games.

Apart from BCS bowls and their big-time payouts, schools love minor bowls because they can reward big donors with a week-long party in a resort location. Coaches, besides the extra 15 practices, love tweaking with schemes and reputations to misdirect opponent plans and pull off a surprise, either with an upset or, at least, a spectacular style of play that causes recruits to swoon.

Which is mostly why Huskies’ head coach Steve Sarkisian closed practices here in south Texas. And it may have been why he could take the liberty Wednesday of throwing former star quarterback Jake Locker under the bus, if only a leg or two, to help with the misdirection.

Asked to elaborate on the value of running back Chris Polk to the turnaround in Washington’s fortunes, Sarkisian was willing to say it was greater than the oft-heralded savior of the program.

“Not to take anything away from a guy by the name of Jake Locker,” he said, “but probably the biggest reason why we’ve climbed from the depth of 0-12 is our ability to rely on No. 1 (Polk) to run the football when times have gotten tough, and to win tough games late in the season.”

The image of Locker as the stalwart who helped Washington get through the Tyrone Willingham era is nearly sacred around Montlake. But not only is it true that Polk has been the single most reliable, successful figure over the last few years, Sarkisian’s praise is designed to deliver a pump-fake to Baylor while making a play to keep Polk for another year.

To have a shot at beating Baylor, a nine-point favorite, the Huskies are going to have to do things they haven’t shown before on offense, which doesn’t include giving Polk the ball 25 times between the tackles.

Asked about closing practices here, when he did not at San Diego’s Holiday Bowl a year ago, Sarkisian downplayed the notion of surprise.

“I don’t think you can change everything,” Sarkisian said, which, of course, no one asked him to do. “But there will be some wrinkles, I’m sure, for both teams that will be unique to this game. Some will go unnoticed, quite honestly, and some will be obvious to the common fan’s eyes.”

Translation from coach-speak: Fire up the calliope, the circus is in town.

Because the Alamo Bowl is traditionally one of the most-viewed games of the bowl season — it has Thursday to itself — and has the draw of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, the attention will be a great opportunity to make a national recruiting splash.

With huge new revenues due from the Pac-12 Conference television contracts, plus a renovated Husky Stadium opening in 2013, the Huskies are ending an old football era and ready to begin a powerful new one. An upset of Baylor would be a bold signal that UW is back on the national college scene.

Success next year would be greatly enhanced if Polk were to return for a fifth season. He said this week that he was 50-50 about making himself eligible for the NFL draft. The conventional wisdom is that Polk, having completed requirements for a degree in ethnic studies and with little left to prove on the football field, has little reason not to go pro.

At his request, Polk was graded by the NFL draft advisory board to estimate which rounds he is most likely to be taken in the April draft, although he has not seen the information.

“Chris and his family and myself have a tough decision to make after this game,” Sarkisian said. “This is a business decision. This isn’t a matter of what feels fun or what feels right. He’s earned his degree and played great football for us.

“Now the question is, ‘Is this the right draft for me?’ and ‘Am I projected in the right spot to do what I know I’m capable of doing?’ and ‘Could I benefit more and could I improve more by coming back next season and what might the draft look like next year?’ It’s not about emotion or taking a certain number of carries.”

Sarkisian will claim to be objective, but he has a rooting interest in Polk’s return to a good offense with only a few graduation holes. He can enhance his chances Thursday by getting the ball to Polk in the open field, to showcase his considerable talents as a receiver, and by demonstrating the efficiency operating the full UW playbook under a healthy Keith Price at quarterback.

With 29 receptions, Polk was Washington’s fifth-leading receiver, averaging 11.2 yards per catch with four TDs, including a 70-yarder, the UW’s longest of the season.  Sarkisian has nothing to lose by playing the card of Polk piling up yards in 2012 as an all-purpose back in a more versatile offense.

As with Griffin, who has the same choice to make after completing his degree in political science, Polk would need to be convinced that foregoing a year’s salary as a second- or third-round pick would be worth the injury risk in coming back to Washington to challenge for the Pac-12 title, a BCS bowl and a higher draft spot. And maybe a Heisman campaign.

The campaign platform provided by the bowl game is one Sarkisian likes. As with every bowl game coach, he doesn’t have to win to win.

NOTES --  Sarkisian said two players are doubtful for the Thursday game: CB Will Shamberger (stinger) and WR/KR Kevin Smith (knee). Shamberger’s absence further thins the Huskies’ weakest position, one that already lost its coach, Demetrice Martin, hired away by Jim Mora at UCLA . . . The most points scored in an Alamo Bowl was in 2000, when Nebraska beat Northwestern 66-17. The most points scored in a BCS bowl game is 85, and the most points in any bowl is the 2001 GMAC Bowl (Marshall 64, East Carolina 61). The over-under on most lines is 79 1/2  . . . Dumb and smarter: At the civic luncheon Wednesday, the host asked WR Jermaine Kearse at the head table what it was like to kiss a dolphin during the Huskies’ visit to Sea World. “It was beluga whale,” he said. Well played, dude . . . Sarkisian on whether playing Oregon is a help plotting for Baylor: “I think it’s helpful for sure. Our guys have seen (Oregon’s) speed. I think that what we’ve done offensively, in incorporating some no-huddle stuff and an up-tempo level of play dating all the way back to last spring, has helped (defensive preparation). That was strategically part of why we did it. It’s added a dimension to our football team that has been good for our offense, but has helped our defense to feel comfortable in that setting. I think that so much of the no-huddle offense is that it doesn’t feel comfortable for many; it almost feels chaotic and that’s the worst-case scenario for a defense.”


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