Let's be honest: there hasn't been much to talk about when it comes to Cougar Football this summer. Prior to the start of fall camp - and it's getting closer by the day, thank goodness - no news is good news. That's because any news at this point is likely involving the injury, discipline or dismissal of a key player. We could do without that. So instead, let's talk about what makes Cougar Football, dismal as it seems, worth following in 2010.
1. Paul Wulff on the Hot Seat
This seems fairly obvious, but it is the story everyone will be keeping an eye on throughout the season. 2010 is a watershed year for Wulff: Either he documents enough improvement to earn a return to the helm in 2011, or he doesn't. Neither fans nor the athletic department will tolerate a third straight noncompetitive season, regardless of the positive gains we've seen in recruiting. On the other hand, Wulff has a chance to earn his own job security with even a modest win total of three or four games. What makes Wulff's situation more intriguing is that he now has to answer to an Athletic Director - Bill Moos - that didn't hire him, and will likely have different expectations of him than his predecessor.
The question remains to be seen: if Wulff only meets modest expectations for 2010 - a win or two with only minimal improvement against the upper half of the Pac-10 - will he still be shown the door? That's up to Moos, and it's a question we hopefully don't have to see answered.
2. Jeff Tuel, Quarterback
I'd say "quarterback of the future", but that no longer applies. Tuel is the quarterback of the present, and with him lies a lot of hope for the future of the program. Unlike other areas, this is one part of Cougar football we can be legitimately excited about going forward. For the first time since Alex Brink, WSU has some clear-cut stability at the quarterback position (funny saying that about Brink, given Swogger/Rodgers) and Tuel can make fans downright giddy about next season with a solid performance in 2010. All signs point to Jeff being capable of that.
There's one big problem with the Jeff Tuel project, and that's his offensive line. If he's unprotected, his numbers will suffer. The offense as a whole will suffer, especially if we can't be balanced with a run game. Even worse, Tuel will be prone to injury. And injuries are the last thing this team needs, especially after blowing away all of college football in that category last season. We're a Tuel season-ending injury away from having our hopes crushed this year, not to mention a blurrier picture of 2011. Keep your fingers crossed throughout the fall.
3. Apple Cup/Derailing the Jake Locker Heisman Campaign
WSU, in my estimation, has one and only one chance of hosting College Gameday this season. And, sadly, the hopes rest on the Washington Huskies being successful and contending for the Pac-10 title. If they can - and Jake Locker produces Heisman-caliber numbers - ESPN may be willing to make the trip out to Pullman (and even then it's still unlikely, since the game will probably be broadcast anyway by the usual suspect: FSN). And if the Huskies are a big deal (which I'm not sold on, but that's a different story for a different day), there will be a considerable buzz surrounding this year's Cup. Even better, if the Cougs come into the game healthy, they may just be able to whip out the 'Throw out the records' card.
Needless to say, it would be a wonderful night for Washington State football to humble their rival and destroy a Heisman campaign in 60 fateful minutes. Stranger things have happened.
4. Hope for the future
This will be a bigger storyline as the season moves along, but we'll be certainly looking for any glimmer of hope to hang on to, especially if the Cougs struggle early. It could be a young player emerging with loads of potential, like Gino Simone last year. It could be a unit making huge strides forward (hopefully the offensive and/or defensive lines) and changing the complexion of a ball game or two. It could just be a highlight reel play or two, something we've been fairly anemic of the last two seasons.
As bad as everything has been, we've been able to find something to look forward to the last two years. Whether it be Jeff Tuel, Jared Karstetter, or the improving situation at running back, there have been signs the ship may heading back in the right direction. We'll certainly see something surprising - in a positive way - this upcoming season.
5. Cougar Football under Bill Moos
I'd rank this higher, but Moos just doesn't have much in the way of control over how this team performs in 2010. He can, however, lay building blocks throughout the season for the future. We've already seen improvements to the weight room, and I have a feeling Moos may have some more tricks up his sleeve before the fall comes to a close. Maybe it will be an improvement to the athletes' facilities, or maybe it will be an improvement to the Gameday experience. What we do know is that Moos has been busy over the summer constructing his game plan for the future of Cougar Athletics. During football we'll start to see him move into the implementation phase. When that happens, we'll learn a lot about the direction of the Athletic Department and what we might be able to expect in the future.
Whether or not Moos has a big coaching decision to make at the end, he is going to start to put his imprint on the Cougar Football program this fall. That is a big deal.
Will we see a big jump in talent and wins this fall? Will we fall flat and be creating a short list of coaching candidates in November? Who knows. What we do know, for now, is that there are a few good reasons to stay interested in how it all plays out.