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2017 WSU Football Preview: Breaking down the Cougs’ schedule

Wazzu has football opponents. Who are these jokers anyway?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2017 Washington State Cougars football season. For previous installments, click here.

There’s no getting around it: Washington State has a weird football schedule this year. Even head coach Mike Leach calls it "about the strangest" schedule he’s ever seen. Five straight home games kick-off the fall. To those about to drive from the West Side to Pullman every weekend this September, I salute you.

Other than location, the order and strength of opponents isn’t all that unfavorable. WSU will probably be the odds-on favorite in the first four games. The Cougs also get USC to cap off that run of five home games in five weeks — when weird stuff can happen to even great teams — and WSU really only stacks "heavyweight" opponents once in the whole season, with Stanford and Utah back-to-back. There’s even a bye the following week before the Apple Cup.

Odd schedule, for sure, but also one that looks like wins. Let’s break it down.

WEEK 1: SATURDAY, SEPT. 2

Opponent: Montana State
Venue: Martin Stadium

Montana State v Michigan State
This photo is from 2009. It’s the most recent photo of Montana State in our photo tool. Sorry, Montana State fans.
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Finding out how many wins it takes to keep a fanbase appeased while losing to an FCS school every year is a social experiment I’m not particularly interested in being a part of.

Jeff Choate — who you’ll remember as a linebackers coach for Mike Leach during his first season in Pullman — took the reigns at Montana State in December 2015. Since then, he’s turned over around two-thirds of the roster, including 37 new players this season. Tyler Bruggman wasn’t the only former FBS player from Washington to make a pit stop in Montana; Husky cornerbacks Darren Gardenhire and Naijiel Hale also popped up in Bozeman but are no longer with the Bobcats following some legal trouble.

Montana State brings a defense to Pullman that has struggled to stop anything their offense was doing in fall camp and an offense featuring the quarterback as the leading rusher.

WEEK 2: SATURDAY, SEPT. 9

Opponent: Boise State
Venue: Martin Stadium

NCAA Football: Cactus Bowl-Boise State vs Baylor Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos open up their season against Troy. Those unfamiliar with the Fun Belt might not know Troy went 10-3 last season and only lost by six to Clemson in Death Valley on Week 2. Boise State can’t sleep on Troy.

The big storyline for game week probably will be the return of a quarterback named Rypien to Pullman. Mark’s nephew, Brett (above), leads an offense that’s down one Jeremy McNichols, who moved on to Tampa Bay (as all Boise RBs do) and featuring a lot of unknowns. Boise State fans have spread throughout Eastern Washington in the past decade-plus and you should expect a raucous Martin Stadium ... with a fair amount of blue and orange.

WEEK 3: SATURDAY, SEPT. 16

Opponent: Oregon State
Venue: Martin Stadium

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Colorado State Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Beavs are entering Year 3 under head coach Gary Andersen. They added both a capable-looking quarterback in Jake Luton and Duck transfer Thomas Tyner to the backfield with Ryan Nall on offense.

However, they were still somewhat incapable-looking on defense against Colorado State (which could end up being a very good team) last Saturday. We’ll learn a lot about Oregon State by the time they come to Pullman, as they host Portland State and Minnesota in the coming weeks. The Beavs remain full of offensive potential but gave credence to the skepticism of their defense by allowing 58 points to an MWC team in their opener.

WEEK 4: SATURDAY, SEPT. 23

Opponent: Nevada
Venue: Martin Stadium

NCAA Football: Utah State at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Before losing to FCS teams was cool, Nevada held the honor of Most Frustrating Loss in the Mike Leach Era. The Cougs dropped a stinker to the Wolf Pack down in Reno in 2014, 24-13.

Northwestern is paying Nevada $1.3MM for the opportunity to play them in Week 1 (WSU is paying them $300K thanks to the aforementioned trip); after that pay-day, the Wolf Pack host a very good Toledo team and Idaho State before traveling north to the Palouse.

Matt Mumme, the offensive coordinator in Reno, is the son of Hal Mumme, who pioneered of the Air Raid offense with Mike Leach at Valdosta State and Kentucky. If there’s any offense the Coug defense should be prepared to stop, it will be this one.

WEEK 5: FRIDAY, SEPT. 29

Opponent: Southern California
Venue: Martin Stadium

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Last year the Trojans managed to shake off a lot of the stink that accumulated under former head coach Steve Sarkisian, going 10-3 with a win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl in what was arguably the best game of last season.

The gas tank in the Hype Machine was filled up and the spark plug replaced this off-season. USC is USC again. They feature a Heisman Trophy front-runner at quarterback (who is hosting a podcast called ‘Season of Sam’ with Yogi Roth) and have a Top 5 pre-season ranking from the AP ... standard fare for the Men Of Troy.

The Trojans play three ranked teams in their first five games, hosting No. 14 Stanford and No. 23 Texas in Weeks 2 and 3. They follow that up with a trip to Berkeley before venturing to Pullman for a primetime date with the No. 24 Cougs on a Friday night.

USC will be tested and with a couple of decisive wins, there’s a very real possibility most would consider them the best team in football by the time they set foot in Martin Stadium. Quarterback Sam Darnold has the type of mobility and athleticism that could nullify a defensive front based almost entirely on speed.

WEEK 6: SATURDAY, OCT. 7

Opponent: Oregon
Venue: Autzen Stadium

Oregon v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Willie Taggart replaced Mark Helfrich as the head man, breaking a Duck coaching continuity that went back to Rich Brooks in the 90s. Chip Kelly’s more recent influences have had about all of their shine wear off and Taggart brings in his own exciting brand of offensive football.

Then Oregon spent money like it was fake to hire every assistant they wanted to in the off-season. Remember how good Colorado’s defense was last year? Oregon paid over a million dollars a season to grab their coordinator, Jim Leavitt. Wazzu’s former staff fan-favorite, Coach Joe, nearly doubled his salary by moving to Eugene. If the Ducks don’t eventually find success under Taggart, it won’t be because they didn’t try to buy it.

Oregon returns quarterback Justin Herbert and why-can’t-he-leave-already Royce Freeman, who has punished Pac-12 defenses since 2014. The Ducks will be tested in their non-conference by a trip to Laramie after hosting Nebraska. They then get to ease into conference play with likely bottom-feeders Arizona State and Cal before welcoming Wazzu into Autzen.

WEEK 7: FRIDAY, OCT. 13

Opponent: California
Venue: California Memorial Stadium

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Creepy GIF pioneer Justin Wilcox takes over head coaching duties from Sonny Dykes, who wanted to be any place other than Cal for maybe his entire tenure there. Wilcox also brings Cheney’s Beau Baldwin and his prolific passing offense to Strawberry Canyon.

This coaching staff could end up working out well for Cal, but Year Zeroes aren’t counted for a reason. And you probably shouldn’t count this season with the schedule they got.

The Bears open up conference play by hosting USC, then tripping to Oregon and Washington before inviting Wazzu into Memorial Stadium. Oh and they start the season on the road against a strong North Carolina team and then host a fantastic culture-clash with Ole Miss in Week 3.

WEEK 8: SATURDAY, OCT. 21 - HOMECOMING

Opponent: Colorado
Venue: Martin Stadium

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Colorado Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffs lost Sefo Liufau to the NFL ... but also lost him a lot during last season, which allowed Steven Montez to get some run before he took over fully this fall. Phillip Lindsay and Shay Fields also are back, leading an offense that shouldn’t experience much of a step-back from last year.

On the flip side, the Buffs lost a great deal of important people on defense — especially the guy calling the shots, who accepted a few Scrooge McDuck vaults worth of coinage to help Oregon course-correct from a near fatal dose of Brady Hoke. Colorado won’t have the defensive squad that carried them to the Pac-12 Championship Game, but the Buffs still are near the top of the South, with some thinking they’re the only ones who pose a real threat to Southern Cal.

We’ll get a decent heat-check on the Buffs this weekend: They open up in Denver against a Colorado State team that thrashed Oregon State a week ago. CU then gets UW at home and plays UCLA in Pasadena, likely determining who is slotted behind the Trojans in the South before calendar flips to October. A breather in Tuscon against Arizona and a jaunt to Corvallis precede their trip to Pullman.

WEEK 9: SATURDAY, OCT. 28

Opponent: Arizona
Venue: Arizona Stadium

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona isn’t very good. They have enough talent to beat some people, so just make sure you’re not one of those people.

The Wildcats start conference play with a run at the decent teams in the South —hosting Utah, going to Boulder and hosting the Bruins — which means their place at the bottom of the division could be set by the middle of October.

Rich Rodriguez is probably on the hottest seat in the PAC-12 and a string of losses to open conference play won’t help things. It very briefly gets easier for them with a trip to Cal before turning real dicey again with Washington State coming to town and a trip to USC on the horizon.

WEEK 10: SATURDAY, NOV. 4 - DAD’S WEEKEND

Opponent: Stanford
Venue: Martin Stadium

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Week 2 showdown with USC could tell us a lot about what Stanford will be this season. Bryce Love is expected to admirably fill the shoes of Christian McCaffrey, and Keller Chryst is expected to have grown into a starting quarterback this past off-season, and the Stanford defense is expected to be as good as they have been because they are Stanford’s defense. We’ll see.

The Cardinal schedule is hilariously divided, back-ending all of their North division games to ensure the championship race has some intrigue all the way into November. After USC (and a not-so-pushover contest against SDSU), Stanford run through the rest of the South — hosting UCLA and ASU then going to Utah — before taking a shot at anyone in their division. A homer against the Ducks and a trip to Corvallis lead into their venture onto the Palouse.

After facing the State of Oregon, they take on the better piece of the Pacific Northwest. Last year, the Cardinal faced the State of Washington in back-to-back weeks and got 40-plus points hung on them in back-to-back weeks. These two weeks in November will likely decide if it’s Stanford or the winner of the Apple Cup who represents the North.

WEEK 11: SATURDAY, NOV. 11

Opponent: Utah
Venue: Rice-Eccles Stadium

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Indiana vs Utah Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Cheney infection of the Pac-12 spread to Utah, with former EWU QB Coach Troy Taylor taking the helm of Kyle Whittingham’s offense. Taylor’s offense is most recognized for being a bit free-wheeling at quarterback — it puts the signal-caller in position to streetball a bit and make plays.

The Utes moved aside senior quarterback Troy Williams, who won nine games for them last year, for the exciting athleticism of sophomore Tyler Huntley. Expect the Utes to be very different looking on offense next season. Paired with a typically stout defense and imposing home-field advantage, the Utes are definitely the most over-looked team in the South and probably the conference.

The Utes get Stanford at home but trip to the Coliseum early in conference play. Before hosting the Cougs, Utah goes to Pasadena and has UW to look forward to the week after, finishing up with Colorado at home.

WEEK 12: SATURDAY, NOV. 18

Opponent: BYE
Venue: Martin Stadium

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Can’t we get a bye week in the middle of the season just once? Given the recent history in the Apple Cup and the brutal physicality of facing Stanford and Utah in back-to-back weeks, this is probably one of the better spots for a bye despite it requiring 11 consecutive weeks of football games to reach.

WEEK 13: SATURDAY, NOV. 25

Opponent: Washington
Venue: Husky Stadium

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Whereas WSU gets a week off to rest (and ice) after their Stanford-Utah combo, the pre-season Top 10 Huskies are not so lucky. Our neighbors run a gauntlet to end the season; getting fake-tough UCLA and hated rival Oregon at home before going to The Farm and welcoming the only fanbase (Utah) more obnoxious than they are into Seattle.

Freshly-rested Wazzu stands in front of them after that run, with a likely date to the conference championship again on the line.

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