Are you ready for some football?!?! We are less than a week away from Washington State beginning its season against Montana State, so I thought now is the appropriate time to prognosticate and see how the upcoming year will look. Before I get into predictions, I wanted to highlight one offensive key and one defensive key entering the season:
The WSU running backs, not Luke Falk, will steal the headlines
I know all eyes will be on senior quarterback, and maybe future first round pick, Luke Falk, but let's ignore him for a little bit and talk about the running backs.
It's Earth, Wind, Fire and whatever James Williams is called. With an almost complete overhaul at wide receiver, Jamal Morrow, James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington will have to take on a lot of pressure moving the team down the field. This is really no problem for them since Washington State had the most productive RB group in the PAC-12 last season. That unit (mostly Williams, Morrow and Wicks) put up well more than 2,000 yards of total offense and logged 29 touchdowns. Harrington was electric as a freshman, he took a backseat in 2016, but he's expected to see a lot more time as a junior. Head coach Mike Leach will get creative with personnel and I expect Luke Falk to dump it down or check to the run often with the talent around him. The running backs should make his job a whole lot easier.
Do the Cougs have enough beef up front on defense to pressure the quarterback and stop the run?
It has been well documented that Washington State does not have the biggest guys up front. Hercules Mata'afa is an All-American talent, so don't let his size fool you, but the team is going to need a lot of players around him to step up. Alex Grinch's defense stresses 'Speed D,' so expect them to fight size with quickness, which could work...maybe. Only time will tell. We'll have a better understanding of this after the game against Boise State.
There are plenty of veterans at linebacker and in the secondary to make one think this unit is going to be 'OK' during the season. In 2015, the Cougs forced 24 turnovers. In 2016, WSU forced 23 turnovers. So, the defense didn't necessarily take a step backwards last year, but it really didn't improve, either. Alos, the unit as a whole created way less pressure on the quarterback, at least in terms of sacks and tackles for losses. It will be interesting to see how this defense performs especially since Grinch is considered one of the rising stars in this profession. If anyone can do more with less, it's Alex Grinch. Hopefully, he doesn't have to dig too deep into his depth.
2017 Schedule Prediction
9/2 vs. Montana State
All right, time to delve into the predictions. Washington State's struggles in the first game of the year are well documented. Mike Leach has never coached WSU to a 1-0 record. The last time the Cougs won the first game of the season was back in 2011. In addition, Wazzu has lost back-to-back games against FCS opponents. Portland State came to Martin Stadium in awful conditions to walk away with a narrow win. Then in 2016, a stacked Eastern Washington team just drove all over the Cougs en route to another upset win on the Palouse. For the third straight year, a Big Sky opponent will come to Martin Stadium to begin the season and Montana State head coach Jeff Choate is no stranger to this area. The St. Maries High School product was a head coach at Post Falls High School from 1997-2001. He then spent a lot of time on Chris Petersen's staff at Boise State before spending a cup of coffee at WSU in 2012 as a linebackers coach. He went back to Petersen's staff at Washington from 2014-2015 before earning this head coaching position in Bozeman. Needless to say, he'll be prepared. As for the Cougs, they'll be more than prepared as well. Many of the defensive players told me last week they were studying film on Montana State during the summer. They know a triple-option team is coming and as long as they're disciplined, they are confident in how the night will go. In 2015, weather was a fluky equalizer. In 2016, EWU was just a really darn good team. In 2017, the Cougs will not allow themselves to drop another embarrassing home opener. They are way too locked in on this game and humbled enough to realize that no one can be taken for granted.
9/9 vs. Boise State
There will be a little more excitement for this 7:30 p.m. game at Martin Stadium the following week. Shadle Park grad and junior quarterback Brett Rypien will take the field in Pullman, a place he is very familiar with growing up in Spokane. Last season on the blue turf, Washington State started off horribly trailing 24-7 at one point in the 3rd quarter before making a late comeback. The team still lost 31-28. After the game, Leach was certainly not happy:
On paper, Washington State is a better team than Boise State. I would really like to think the Cougs are going to take care of business, but there's always one disappointing loss when it comes to this program and I feel like this is the early deflator. I can see the Broncos making a last minute drive to down Washington State on the road. I'll be going against the grain on a handful of picks and this is really my first 'upset' selection.
9/16 vs. Oregon State
The Cougs get to bounce back the next week playing a lowly Oregon State squad. The Beavers came into the season hoping to have bowl-game aspirations, but after getting pummeled by Colorado State last week (58-27), I think it might take a year or two before that happens. Oregon State is led by former Idaho backup quarterback Jake Luton and he seemed a bit erratic in his first start of the year. Washington State came out really ugly in Corvallis for a tough night game on Halloween weekend last season. After trailing 24-6 at halftime, WSU demolished in the second half winning 35-31. I don't expect Oregon State to keep it that close this year, but watch out for running back Ryan Nall. He's a stud:
9/23 vs. Nevada
This is a really weird game for Washington State. They've now been playing at home for three straight weeks, just got the first PAC-12 contest out of the way and now they have to welcome a middle-of-the-road Mountain West team before playing a monster Friday night game against top-5 ranked USC. First year head coach Jay Norvell knows the PAC-12 well as he comes to Reno from Arizona State. This is a trap game if I've ever seen one. Nevada is not particularly good, especially after its leading rusher transferred to Iowa in the offseason, but I'm telling you right now, this is going to be an ugly game. Despite the scare, the Cougs will pull out the victory as their eyes are fixated on the monumental task in six days.
9.29 vs. No. 4 USC
This game, unfortunately, cannot be a College Gameday site since it will be under the lights on Friday, but the Cougs still take a big stage against the Trojans on ESPN. The last time these two teams faced off, Connor Halliday's career came to an end and Luke Falk officially took over at Washington State. When it comes to USC, the name you need to know is Sam Darnold. The Heisman favorite, and possible first overall pick in the 2018 draft, has scouts salivating. If USC started Darnold at the beginning of the 2016 season, the Trojans probably make the College Football Playoffs. Washington State hasn't faired too well against USC in its career. The Cougs beat a fairly weak Southern California team in 2013 on the road, after that, the next win is all the way back in 2002 when a Carson Palmer-led squad lost to WSU in Pullman in overtime (The Cougs would eventually go to the Rose Bowl that season). The same narrative will be built up entering this contest. Playing on Friday at Martin Stadium definitely helps Washington State and I think the energy in that stadium will be as electric as it has ever been. Is USC a better team on paper? Yes. Does that mean USC wins? No. I think this game is a battle for all four quarters and the fans at Martin Stadium storm the field in what will be Mike Leach's biggest win on campus.
10/7 at Oregon
The 'Luke Falk for Heisman' train is in full effect after that big win against USC, now the team plays its first road game of the season on October 7th in Eugene. That's right. It takes until October for the Cougs to hit the road. That's going to be a tough transition to make after spending so much time at home. Washington State has had Oregon's number these past two years (along with many others to be honest), but first year head coach Willie Taggart will be ready to earn a big win on his own turf. This is just a really bad spot for Washington State. The Cougs have never had too much fun at Autzen Stadium before 2015's overtime victory (a game Vernon Adams did not play) and they're going to struggle a bit after coming off that monumental win. I do have to say, Oregon is not as good as many pundits are making them out to be. Taggart is doing wonderful things on the recruiting trail, but the effects of those efforts won't be felt in Eugene for at least another year or two. Despite the Ducks continuing to rebuild though, the Cougs suffer a big loss on the road and must regain momentum once again.
10/13 at California
No time for Washington State to be disappointed about that loss in Eugene as the team travels to Cal for a 7:30 p.m. game on Friday. New California offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin knows a thing or two about beating Washington State. His Eastern Washington squad took down the Cougs in the season opener last season and even back in 2012, EWU only lost 24-20 in Pullman. Of course, none of that matters in 2017 as Cal is probably one of the worst teams in the PAC-12. That program is going under a new regime so they will have some tough times ahead. Despite Beau's familiarity with Washington State, their team is not good enough to beat the Cougs this season. It is worth noting WSU has only won in Berkeley once dating back to 2003.
10/21 vs. Colorado
Washington State returns to Martin Stadium after a couple of weeks away to take on Colorado, the surprise team of 2016. The Buffs lose a lot in the secondary this season and also lost their incredible defensive coordinator to Oregon. Wazzu's rough ending last season started on the road at Colorado when Luke Falk put forth one of his worst performances of the season. I don't see that happening again in 2017. I think Colorado takes a step back this year and Washington State takes care of business back at home. Mike MacIntyre's team will be playing their third road game in four weeks and the Cougars capitalize. Washington State starts gaining confidence again with a solid victory under its belt.
10/28 at Arizona
If you want a reminder about how badly Washington State beat Arizona last year, just click here. The 69-7 rout was unbelievable to watch. The statistics from this one are insane including the fact the quarterbacks as a whole (Luke Falk and Tyler Hilinski) threw six touchdowns with five incompletions! This could be a semi-trap game with Stanford looming, but even a lethargic Washington State team should beat Arizona in Tuscon. Rich Rodriguez is most likely fired after the season.
11/4 vs. No. 14 Stanford
On the flip side, if you want a reminder about how upsetting Washington State's last home loss against Stanford was, check the highlights below:
I mean, c'mon. Besides the missed field goal...that's clearly a fumble.
If everything falls into place, this could be the ESPN College Gameday pick. For Washington State to have a chance at the PAC-12 North, they have to beat Stanford. Alex Grinch has always done a great job limiting that Cardinal offense, but the defensive front is going to be in for a really tough battle with those big offensive linemen in Palo Alto. Now, to this point in the season, the Cougs have yet to have a bye week, so they are going to be running on pure emotions. Stanford is a really good team and completely throttled Rice in the season opener, but I'm not convinced this team is as good as everyone says in the media. They have a lot of returning players, but do have to replace two first rounders in Soloman Thomas and Christian McCaffrey. In another packed house at Martin Stadium for Luke Falk's final game at home, the senior carries his team to victory as 'NY6' bowl game rumblings begin to pick up once again. (Disclaimer: The Rose Bowl is a semifinal location this year, so the PAC-12 winner isn't guaranteed a spot in Pasadena).
11/11 at Utah
Anddddd just like the USC win, the Cougs head on the road to Utah and just come out flat. Washington State has been going ten weeks strong and just cannot muster the strength to take down a stingy Utah team in Salt Lake City. Historically, WSU has done very well against the Utes and own a two-game winning streak against Kyle Whittingham's team, but this contest will probably go similarly to the one in Colorado last season. Slowly, but surely, Utah chips away at the Cougs. The loss will hurt Washington State in the College Football Playoff rankings, but the team will still have a chance to win the PAC-12 North at Washington in two weeks.
11/25 at No. 8 Washington
Is this the year Washington State finally wins an Apple Cup? Mike Leach is 1-4 in the rivalry game and is on a four-game losing streak against his neighbors to the west. Dating back to 1990, Washington State has won three games against the Huskies in Seattle (1997, 2005 and 2007)...that's it. Chris Petersen's team is loaded once again, though the secondary is going to look a lot different. With the Cougs having their bye week before the big game, it will force Leach and company to look a week ahead, something Leach is adamantly against, and be better equipped for what's to come from Washington. I think all Wazzu fans are just hoping for a competitive matchup. In 2015, Peyton Bender filled in for an injured Luke Falk and did not have a good time. In 2016, an early hole doomed Washington State at home. I don't imagine the Huskies to roll over WSU like they have the past three years, but until the Cougs go out there and prove they can put up a fight, I just can't pick WSU to beat Washington.
Season Prediction: 8-4
For the third straight year, the Cougs finish the regular season 8-4. Washington State fans will be upset to know they could never reach that 'big' bowl game with Luke Falk at the helm, but fairly appreciative of the wild ride it was, especially with those two big wins against USC and Stanford. The 2018 season will bring a lot of change with 18 seniors on the two-deep leaving, along with kicker Erik Powell.
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