Cougars open Thursday against Rutgers at the Clink, the last “home” game in Seattle for awhile but the first of three cupcakes before the Pac-12 Conference schedule intrudes.
No one doubts that Washington State football has improved significantly since Mike Leach replaced Paul Wulff as head coach in 2012. More wins? Check. Better recruits? Check. Increased attendance? Check. Renewed hope? Check.
True, it seems like the least Leach could do for his $4.6 million. That’s the approximate haul (counting bonuses) Leach made in his first two seasons on the Palouse, during which he compiled an uninspiring 9-16 record.
Hmm. That works out to about $511,000 per win. Nice work if you can get it. Particularly when one considers that Wulff was paid $600,000 per SEASON.
Mind you, this did nothing to prevent athletic director Bill Moos from recently awarding Leach a $500,000 pay raise. You have our permission to halt any and all plans for a clothing drive for Leach and his loved ones, even though the ol’ (forever passing the) ball coach now struggles by on a measly $2.75 million per year.
Hey, burgers don’t come cheap at the Cougar Country Drive In.
Lest we forget how far the Cougars have come in Leach’s 2½ years on the Palouse, Wulff peaked in his final season at WSU by posting 4-8 overall and 2-7 Pac-12 records. The Cougars actually went backward in Leach’s first season (3-8 and 1-8), then finished 6-7 and 4-5 last year. Nothing short of one of the most stunning, both-hands-placed-firmly-around-the-neck choke jobs in bowl game history – courtesy of fumble-itis at the end of the New Mexico Bowl – cost the Cougars their first winning season since 2003.
Leach says this year’s squad is the best he’s fielded in Pullman. Most “experts” agree. Unfortunately for the Cougars, that does nothing to assure they will finish above .500 — overall or in league play.
The Pac-12 is widely regarded as the second-best conference in the land behind the vaunted SEC, and plenty of folks maintain the gap between the two leagues is narrowing. Ten Pac-12 teams return their starting quarterbacks, including Washington State senior gunslinger Connor Halliday.
A significant injury to Halliday would almost certainly doom the Cougars, since he is the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in a college game. Leach, of course, would sooner dine on liver and onions than run the ball.
The Cougars figure to start the season 3-0 against Rutgers, Nevada and Portland State. Then comes the seemingly inevitable loss to mighty Oregon in a Pac-12 opener Sept. 20 in Pullman.
Halliday and his deep, gifted crew of receivers should feast on suspect secondaries the first three weeks. The Cougars are so loaded at receiver, they’re talking about redshirting junior Gabe Marks. All Marks did last season is catch 74 balls, second-best in school history.
USA Today’s Paul Myerberg ranks WSU 61st, Nevada 82nd and Rutgers 98th among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Portland State, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division I-AA) squad, is projected to finish WAY back in the Big Sky Conference. The Vikings simply want the $500,000 payday to help them buy new volleyballs, shot puts and whatnot.
Once Oregon injects the Cougars with a dose of reality – though the game may be quite competitive – Wazzu would need to follow the 3-1 start with no worse than a split of the remaining eight games to guarantee a winning season and bowl trip. Those last eight games are all Pac-12 contests, and it may be exceedingly difficult for WSU to post a winning league record for the first time since 2003.
An Oct. 4 home game with California (No. 116 on Myerberg’s list) might be the only Pac-12 game in which WSU is favored. The other Pac-12 teams headed to Pullman are, using Myerberg’s rankings, No. 26 Arizona Oct. 25, No. 13 USC Nov. 1 and No. 23 Washington Nov. 29.
The Cougars may be favored Sept. 27 at No. 66 Utah. Stanford, No. 7 in Myerberg’s estimation, almost certainly will be a big favorite Oct. 10 in Palo Alto. No. 52 Oregon State and record-setting quarterback Sean Mannion can’t wait to test that young WSU secondary Nov. 8 in Corvallis. Washington State then gets a bye week to prep for a Nov. 22 game at No. 47 Arizona State. The crimson-faced Cougars have been outscored 88-7 on their two most recent visits to Tempe.
A season-opening loss to Rutgers, an 8½-point underdog, would shoot a gaping hole in the hype bubble surrounding the Cougars. The Scarlet Knights figure to take a pounding in their first season in the Big Ten. Still, the Cougars will be forced to make some calculated guesses on both sides of the ball Thursday at CenturyLink Field (7 p.m., FOX Sports 1), since Rutgers has a new offensive coordinator (former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen) and a new defensive coordinator (Joe Rossi).
The Cougars, who have no plans to move any more “home” games to Seattle thanks to a landslide of TV money and the upgrades made to Martin Stadium, have dropped the past five west-side home games – all by lopsided margins. Despite considerable optimism for the 2014 season, and the buzz generated by the stadium improvements and the addition of the splendid new Football Operations Building at the west end zone, ticket sales have been exceedingly lukewarm for the opener.
No doubt the string of dismal showings in Seattle, not to mention a Thursday game prior to Labor Day weekend, has hurt the gate. Not that the Cougars have been knockin’ em dead elsewhere in recent years. Even last season, the Cougars yielded more than 50 points four times before giving up 48 to Colorado State – yes, the mighty Rams — in the bowl game.
Halliday ranked third in the nation in passing yards last season, and a steady stream of 400-yard passing games seem certain as long as the Cougars can keep Halliday upright. Interestingly, the Cougars have plenty of depth and talent at running back, even though running backs are little more than receivers in disguise in Leach’s offense.
The kicking game is a huge question mark, and the Cougars are guilty until proven innocent on defense after ranking among the most porous in the nation a year ago (as was Rutgers). WSU’s experienced front seven must bail out the young defensive backs until they can hold their own. All-American safety Deone Bucannon is long gone, a first-round draft pick by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Halliday will command most of the headlines, but the fortunes of the secondary and offensive line may ultimately determine whether the Cougars sink, swim or tread water this fall. The DBs and O-linemen should get a soft landing against Rutgers, since the Scarlet Knights’ passing game and defense are hardly overwhelming. Do not, however, overlook such players as defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, running back Paul Jones, weakside linebacker Steve Longa and tight end Tyler Kroft. Quarterback Gary Nova has started most of his four years at Rutgers, with mixed results.
Will this be Leach’s breakthrough year at Washington State? Me thinks so. Put me down for 8-4 in the regular season and 5-4 in the Pac-12, capped by an Apple Cup victory in Pullman. If I’m wrong, I’m blaming it on how dizzy I got trying to read all those zeroes in Leach’s paycheck.