If you’re a college football fan, and more specifically a fan of the Washington State Cougars, you’ve probably already mapped out a road to the Pac-12 Championship, the Rose Bowl and beyond. Sure, this is optimism season. Fantasies are fun and how else are you supposed to kill time in August?
I’m here to pump up your expectations, but also to temper them. Here are three reasons to continue to feel good about the Cougars’ chances this year and three reasons to wait a few more months before pulling the trigger on those non-refundable plane tickets to Pasadena.
Running backs galore: It’s hard to imagine that in an offense predicated on chucking the ball 50-60 times per game, the running backs would receive much press, if any. So here’s an Air Raid twist for the ages: Jamal Morrow, James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington have not only stolen a few headlines from Luke Falk and his army of talented receivers – the tailbacks have been the story of fall camp to this point. Mike Leach and running backs coach Jim Mastro still have to sort out which of those four will play and that could cause many sleepless nights before the season opener. Or, could all four see the field in some capacity? The brilliant minds in the football ops building will be the ones making those calls, but we do know this about WSU’s running back dilemma: it’s certainly better than having an empty cupboard, and the Cougars know all about that.
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Captain Pelluer: The defense is dotted with question marks this season: how will the defensive line hold up? How do the Cougs move on from Shalom Luani? Is there enough depth at any level? Amidst all of those concerns, there is one absolute: the defense will be a cohesive unit as long as Peyton Pelluer is on the field. A team’s middle linebacker is often likened to its signal-caller and in WSU’s case, Pelluer, the senior Mike backer, is certainly the QB of the Coug D. Pelluer’s 93 tackles in 2016 ranked fourth in the Pac-12, but his ability to plant almost any running back into the turf pales in comparison to what he can do as a field general.
September in Pullman: Only three Power Five teams won’t have to log air miles during the month of September. Missouri and Arkansas both have four home ties and bye weeks at some point during the month, making WSU the only team in college football with five straight home games to start the year. I’ve yet to decide whether this is advantageous or not (see the counterargument below), but it’s not a bad way to get momentum rolling, especially with the early serving of cupcake games on WSU’s schedule. Five-and-oh might be a tough ask, but 4-1 is realistic and even 3-2 gets the Cougars halfway to bowl eligibility with seven games remaining, and two of those at home.
Defense deep enough? Alex Grinch said earlier in the week that the Cougars will probably have to cycle through 22 players on defense this season. That amounts to two players per position, but it’s a safe bet that players such as Pelluer and fellow inside linebacker Isaac Dotson won’t need to be spelled as often as the big guys up front. For now, the D-line behind tackle Hercules Mata’afa, nose tackle Daniel Ekuale and end Nnamdi Oguayo looks pretty bleak. Coaches think there’s decent depth there, but players like Kingston Fernandez, Nate DeRider, Garrett McBroom and Derek Moore haven’t had quite enough opportunity on Saturdays to show it. At one of the two cornerback positions, you feel all right shuffling between Marcellus Pippins and Marcus Strong, but at the other, it’s a massive drop-off between No. 1 Darrien Molton, who was the team’s second-leading tackler last year, and No. 2 George Hicks, who’s only played nine days of college football to this point.
Fourth-down quandaries: Aware that his time as WSU’s punter had probably expired, and that the team across the way had a giant void to fill with its All-American gone, Zach Charme chose to ditch the Cougars for the Vandals. That wasn’t a massive loss for WSU, though, considering the Cougars only used Charme and his classic punting style eight times last season. They preferred the non-traditional ways of Kyle Sweet -- an inside receiver who was called on 32 times in 2016 to boot one of his low, dribbling rugby punts downfield. Sweet’s back, but he’ll be more integral to the offensive operation in 2017, as he tries to fill the gap left by River Cracraft. The strong-legged Erik Powell will have a larger role in the punting game this year, and that could be a boon for the Cougars as long as it doesn’t cut into his kicking duties. WSU punted only 47 times last year -- just six teams in the FBS did it fewer -- so there may not be much to see here. But do pray that Sweet stays healthy.
September in Pullman: Finally ... your counterargument. WSU fans might appreciate having to bring parkas to only two home games this season, but the team itself finds Martin Stadium a cozy venue in October and November. During that time when temperatures start to dip below 50 degrees the Cougars have a distinct edge on almost every team south of the Evergreen State. It’s simple: Luke Falk spends more time spinning a football in the snow than Sam Darnold, so it’s hard to imagine USC’s gunslinger feeling more comfortable at Martin Stadium in November than he might in September. Now, that theory doesn’t always hold up -- Washington’s Jake Browning, a sophomore quarterback who grew up in sunny California, shredded WSU in a bone-chilling Apple Cup last season. But by and large, it’s advantage WSU, and the Cougars have the aid of their good friend “winter” only once this season -- Nov. 4 against Stanford.