WSU is a nearly six-touchdown underdog to No. 2 Oregon, which is undefeated and has won its six games by an average of 43 points. There is no denying the Ducks are vastly superior to the Cougars. The outcome is a forgone conclusion to just about everyone who isn't a direct member of the team.
And yet, there actually will be a game played tonight in which Oregon will have to prove its vast superiority. And as long as there is a game to be played, the outcome is in doubt -- even if the probability of a Cougar win is so small that F/+ says Oregon's chance of winning is 100 percent.
One thing we know for sure: The Cougars are less talented. Oregon has been stacking top 15 recruiting classes for years, and WSU ... has not. Man for man, the Cougars are at a pretty significant disadvantage, which means lining up with the intent to do what you normally do just isn't likely to yield the unlikely result.
So let's talk for a minute about how WSU might pull an upset for the ages.
One way -- perhaps the best way -- to increase the probability of an improbable result is to employ a high variance strategy. Bill Connelly wrote about it here, but the gist is this: Take a lot of big risks in the hope that a large majority of them pay off to have your team in the game at the end.
From Connelly's piece, which was on Louisiana-Monroe's improbable upset of Arkansas last year:
ULM went for it on fourth down an incredible seven times and converted an even more incredible six of them. ... That's not supposed to happen. If the teams lined up and played again this coming Saturday, it almost certainly wouldn't happen again. But Berry knew it was the only way ULM was going to win this game, and unlike so many college coaches, he said "Screw it," and rolled the dice.
Of course, if these big risks backfire, you end up getting run off the field. Hence the use of the phrase "high variance": You'll either be in the game ... or way, way out of it.
I wrote about this a year ago after WSU had lost to Oregon. In that game, Mike Leach passed up a pair of chances to go for it on fourth down inside the 5 yard line, opting for field goals instead. Given the state of the team at the time, perhaps he thought they needed the mental boost of putting some points on the board.
But if the goal was to win the game, taking those field goals was almost certainly not the way to go -- something that should be obvious from the eventual result.
Here's what Mike Leach should be thinking in terms of strategy today if he wants to increase the variance in a way that could work in the Cougs' favor.
Take plenty of aggressive shots downfield
WSU probably will be able to move the ball against Oregon with plenty of short passes -- it's what they've done the last two years. But for soccer fans out there, that's like the team that has 65 percent possession but no shots on goal. You've got to be dangerous with that possession, and moving 4-5 yards at a time in between the 20s looks nice, but when it comes time to put the ball into the end zone, Oregon stiffens up. When the field compresses, the Ducks' lateral speed really takes over.
Counteract that by taking plenty of deep shots. Outside receiver is one of the few spots on the field where WSU has talent that can matchup with Oregon. Gabe Marks, Vince Mayle, Dom Williams ... all have the ability to get loose for big plays, even against Oregon. Try scoring from outside the 20.
Additionally, deep throws can potentially bring the referees into the game. That was Nick Alioti's advice for WSU:
"If I were them, I would throw some deep balls and hope to get a P.I. (pass interference penalty), because officials always call P.I. Because they are horrible, they don't know how to call a game. They don't understand it."
You can't just take shots all day. But the Cougs should take more than usual. Could it result in a bunch more interceptions? Yep! But WSU is going to need some big plays.
Go for every reasonable fourth down
And go ahead and expand your definition of "reasonable" while you're at it. Fourth-and-5 from your own 30? Go for it! Fourth-and-8 from their 40? Go for it! Fourth-and-13 from your own 15? Ehhhh ... probably not. But you get the picture.
Oregon is probably going to score whether it gets the ball on their side of the field or yours, so forget about wasting your time with punts unless the potential for conversion is incredibly small.
Do not trade potential touchdowns for field goals
This ties into the previous key, and should seem obvious enough: You simply cannot leave points on the field when Oregon is likely to score a bunch of touchdowns. You must maximize the points of each possession. Field goals will make you feel good, but they'll give you a fake sense of security.
The only way Andrew Furney should see the field is if it's the fourth quarter and WSU is within a field goal. Walking away with zero points in a point-scoring situation sucks, but don't pretend this game is going to be won with WSU kicking three or four field goals.
Be hyper aggressive on defense
And pray for Marcus Mariota to throw a pick six or something. That's about all I got on this one.
If all of this backfires, WSU could lose by 70. But is there really any difference between losing by four touchdowns or 10? Maybe for people who care about appearances. I'd rather my team take a realistic shot at winning.