As February drags along and we Cougar fans are suffering our way through yet another awful basketball season, the quest to find an oasis in the desert of WSU winter sports becomes ever more desperate. Spring football is still over a month away, so any news regarding our 9-4, Sun Bowl-winning football team comes as welcome respite to the winter doldrums. Jon Wilner obviously sensed this, and posted a three-part series previewing the 2016 Pac-12 football season. Let's take a look at what Mr. Wilner had to say about the conference as a whole, and our Cougars specifically.
Wilner opens up by predicting the order of finish in 2016. First Impression - Man oh man, the Pac-12 North is going to be a bear once again. Wilner has WSU slotted fourth, but admits that they could just as easily finish atop the division.
4. Washington State: Don’t have a good reason for picking WSU behind the Huskies, Cardinal and Ducks — yes, the defense must be rebuilt, but everyone in the division is flawed — so Cougar fans: Feel free to slam me in the comments section below. (More ammo for Cougar fans: The schedule is as favorable as it gets.)
Do yourself a favor and don't read the comments, let alone make one. I can't fault Wilner's logic here, but I would probably put WSU in third place behind Stanford and Washington. Every team in the top four has a blemish or two. Stanford loses a lot of quarterback production, along with several starters from a so-so defense. Washington returns a lot of talent, but really needs John Ross to round back into form because they don't have a ton of playmakers on the outside.
Oregon has a lot of work to do. They lost Vernon Adams, who made all the difference in their team. The jury is obviously out on this year's version of Adams, Dakota Prukop. They must also replace DeForest Buckner, easily the best player on an otherwise ghastly defense. For WSU, a lot will depend on how they replace departed starters on both lines.
After those four there is a clear delineation. Both Cal and Oregon State face a daunting task if they want to finish anywhere but the bottom two. Cal loses a boatload of talent on offense, and Oregon State never had much talent to begin with.
As for the South, Wilner likes (stop me if you've seen this before) USC. All that talent seems to mask fatal flaws, offseason after offseason. Many of us thought the South was the stronger division headed into 2015, but the North turned out to be better, winning 14 of 24 cross-divisional games. This season the roles appear reversed. It'll be a three-team race, according to Wilner. Rosen is easily the best quarterback in the division, but UCLA has several holes to fill. Utah loses Travis Wilson, but I can't tell if that's good or bad.
I won't be surprised if Arizona State is better than advertised. Todd Graham seems to be one of those coaches who never lives up or down to expectations. As for Arizona, I'll always have faith in Rich Rodriguez, but his staff was almost completely made over and Anu Solomon is still his quarterback. If you hadn't noticed, Anu Solomon isn't good.
Good news! While Cal vs. Hawaii isn't exactly a titanic matchup, we still get a bonafide college football game a week early, from Australia no less. Aside from that, there are quite a few decent-to-great non-conference games to watch. Like Wilner writes, the California schools are responsible for many of the juicy games, as they include opponents like Notre Dame (twice), Texas, Alabama, Kansas State, Texas A&M and BYU.
Elsewhere, we know about the Cougs traveling to Boise. There's also Arizona vs. BYU, a rekindling of the Holy War, ASU vs. Texas Tech, Colorado at Michigan (not a good game, but take the "over" on number of times the 1994 Stewart-to-Westbrook Hail Mary is replayed), Oregon at Nebraska (Mike Riley just can't escape the Ducks), Oregon State at Minnesota and Washington against, well, umm, let's move on.
Here's what Wilner had to say about WSU:
The lineup: vs. Eastern Washington, vs Boise State, vs Idaho
The verdict: Cougars have a good chance to sweep the noncon, which means they’l be 3-0 when Oregon comes to town in late September.
That game in Boise is gonna be something. The last time WSU visited, they absolutely whipped the Broncos. There will also be some kid named Rypien under center for BSU. Aside from that game, Mike Leach still hasn't won a season opener at WSU. It would be really cool if that changed next season. If it doesn't, hoo boy.
Wilner has four Cougars on the all-conference team. He starts at the top with Luke Falk, but admits that he could have gone a different direction. I honestly wouldn't have been upset if he picked Rosen. After what I watched him do to WSU, I can't wait until he's gone after 2017. Still, Falk had the better overall season and deserves the nod. The projected conference depth at quarterback is definitely not what it was headed into 2015 with Cal, Stanford, USC, ASU, Oregon and Utah all having to replace varying levels of production.
Wilner's other WSU honorees are Cole Madison, Gabe Marks and Shalom Luani. I can't argue with any of those, though it seemed like Madison struggled quite a bit at times last season. If I had to project a lineman on the first team, I'd probably go with Riley Sorenson. River Cracraft also has a better-than-decent shot as long as he stays healthy.
On defense, Darrien Molton, Peyton Pelluer and Daniel Ekuale are all guys to keep an eye on. Oh, and then there's our little Hercules! I expect to see Hercules Mata'afa terrorizing quarterbacks early and often in 2016. Just imagine if he can bulk up to 265 or so, while maintaining that quickness. Look the hell out.
So there you have it, some fun football preview things to read while waiting for basketball season to reach its merciful conclusion. What are your early thoughts on any and all of these stories for 2016?