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What does success look like in year one under Nick Rolovich?

It’s tricky to try and set a baseline for this very weird seven-game season. But we’re going to try.

This is the latest installment in our series of stories previewing the 2020 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.

Even in the most ideal circumstances, setting expectations for a coach’s first season is tricky — and maybe even trickier at a place like Washington State, where winning more games than we lose has almost never been a foregone conclusion.

Schools with long track records of success can expect big results in year one after bringing in a proven guy in for a gazillion dollars or elevating an assistant who simply will continue to maximize the school’s ample resources. Those kinds of expectations are not always wise, not always fair, and don’t always happen — but when a standard has been set, it’s expected to be met, no matter the immediately preceding circumstances.

For better or worse, we’re a school where circumstances matter, and if anyone was under any illusion that they don’t, Mike Leach put those to rest eight years ago. He was our highly paid savior coming to Pullman on a white horse, and it was ... uh ... a rough transition that took more than three years to get all the way off the ground, involving a lot of roster turnover and more than a few painful results. But eight years later, it’s obvious that our initial faith was well placed. Leach’s coaching bona fides are secure, having turned his extended success at WSU into an SEC gig.

That would seem to set up new coach Nick Rolovich for success out of the gate. However, it’s maybe not quite simple as it first appears; if you look closely, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. Let’s break it down by trying to answer a series of questions — and ultimately try to set some benchmarks for success in his first season.

What kind of program did the previous coach leave behind — both in terms of talent and culture?

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington
Max Borghi is pretty talented!
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the school is coming off its fifth consecutive bowl appearance, an unprecedented run in its history. This would seem to suggest that Rolovich is taking over a program with an established baseline that he should be expected to continue with little trouble.

However, the 2019 Cougs were a little bit like a car that just got detailed but maybe has some parts that need replacing under the hood. Of those six regular season wins, just three came in conference — both of those were the worst marks since 2014. And it darn near wasn’t even that good: Bowl eligibility came in nail-biting fashion thanks to a couple of critical plays late in the fourth quarter of the 11th game — one, an easy throw missed by Oregon State’s Jake Luton on fourth down that would have sealed the loss for WSU; the other, an unexpected run converted by Max Borghi at the goal line with just seconds remaining that would have run out the clock inside the five yard line if it had been unsuccessful.

The Cougs truly were a sliver away from missing a bowl game. And yet, one could also say they left three other wins on the table, where just a couple of successful defensive stands from among UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon would have netted them eight wins for the fifth year in a row.

Trying to parse out which is closer to the truth in terms of the state of the program is tough. It might just be best to say the Cougs played four games that ended up being coin flips, and only one turned up in their favor. If lean into the probabilities and say they probably should have been able to close out two of them, that brings the total to seven, which is still lower than each of the preceding four seasons.

This, despite Leach trotting out what was, by advanced metrics, his best offense at WSU — Bill Connelly’s SP+ rated the Cougs the fifth-best offense in the entire nation. It was the defense that let the team down, often in spectacular fashion (see: preceding paragraphs).

It had gotten to the point where we knew the offense was going to be good every single year under Leach. Because of that, there’s no reason to believe there’s a deficit of talent on offense, even if quarterback is a big question mark.

Defense, though ... man, as last year went on, it became harder and harder to convince ourselves that it was just matter of coaching. Yes, there was dysfunction — which you can say Tracy Claeys was either a cause or victim of — but it also was the year that the Samoan pipeline had dried up after the departure of Joe Salave’a, and given how many of those guys got at least a cup of coffee in the NFL, it was a big loss up front where the team struggled to win the line of scrimmage.

The simplest explanation is that the defense was just talent deficient, and that’s worrying because that’s not the sort of thing that gets turned around very quickly.

And the culture? It’s probably as good as it’s ever been in school history. Leach came in and established his way of winning (not without controversy, but at this point it’s just ... whatever, it worked), and it had gotten to the point where the accountability came from the other players, with the older guys teaching the younger guys the way. That’s exactly what you want, and it’s absolutely huge that Rolovich won’t have to expend a lot of energy figuring out which guys are disgruntled and tearing apart the program from the inside.

Does the new coach represent a philosophical shift on offense and/or defense?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Cheez-It Bowl - Air Force v Washington State
Will Rodgers III and the rest of his defensive teammates should benefit from the changes on defense.
Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Some programs are dumb enough to spoil a good thing by shifting identities on the heels of a successful regime — think Texas Tech replacing Leach with Tommy Tuberville. Fortunately, our administration isn’t stupid, and Pat Chun found a coach who will retain the program’s offense-forward, pass-first identity.

Now, the Run and Shoot is definitely distinct from the Air Raid; however, they’re what you might call philosophical cousins. (Read The Perfect Pass if you’re interested in learning more about this.) Yes, you’ll see more runs from the Run and Shoot, and the passes will attack the defense vertically with greater frequency than what we’ve grown used to — two things that I think will be welcome changes for us as fans. But their core values are really the same: Each deploys 10 personnel (one running back, four wide receivers) in a pass-first effort to force opponents to defend all parts of the field. There’s going to be a learning curve in terms of nuance and intricacies and all that — it’s a different playbook — but it’s hardly going to be a gigantic leap for anyone in the building.

Defense is probably a little different and less important in this respect. It is possible for a coordinator to switch to a scheme that requires significantly different personnel, but that doesn’t appear to be what new coordinator Jake Dickert is doing. Yes, he’s going with a base four-man front instead of three, but it doesn’t seem like things will be radically different. (Besides, even if they were, it’s not like the defense would be blowing up a good thing.)

It looks the defense it going to doing things in a fashion that it’s at least reasonable to hope that the new staff can improve results with what is mostly the same set of guys. Maybe the secondary gets miles better just through experience and better coaching, given how often that unit just looked lost last season.

What kind of buy-in from the players is the new coach going to get?

Navy v Hawaii
Nick Rolovich’s players played hard for him at Hawaii, and it seems like he’s off to a good start getting buy-in from the Cougs.
Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

This is closely related to culture, but a little bit different. The culture prepares the players to be receptive to the new coach; but it’s on the coach to be able to take advantage of that and get the players on board with what he’s trying to do.

By all accounts, everything on this front has been good. Rolovich’s former players in Hawaii raved about him, and the evidence suggests they played hard for him. And shortly after he was hired, the WSU players described Rolovich as a breath of fresh air from Leach. I can’t say whether that’s inherently good or bad — it seems like sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t — but it does indicate that he was able to gain their trust fairly quickly.

Then there was the little matter of #WeAreUnited and the dust up with former wide receiver Kassidy Woods. The picture Woods painted — and supported by the audio of the phone call — was of a coach who was attempting to bully him away from a certain decision. But a number of players publicly came to Rolovich’s defense, and in the end, the other players who had aligned themselves with the #WeAreUnited movement stayed with the program — and Dallas Hobbs ended up comfortable enough to play.

Because all of this is behind closed doors, it’s awfully tough to know for sure, but the outward signs point to these guys being ready to ride with and for Rolovich.

Is the new coach even as good as the previous coach?

Cheez-It Bowl - Air Force v Washington State
This guy was very good at his job, and his specter might hang over the program for a while.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The short answer is no — not yet, anyway.

Look, Mike Leach had a hell of a track record before he came to Pullman. By the end of his time at WSU, his reputation was cemented. Anyone who might have been skeptical that a gimmicky offense was behind what he did at Texas Tech and that the game might have passed Leach by in the years he was out of football was clearly wrong. As we learned, Mike Leach was way, way more than that little piece of paper he holds on the sideline.

There’s no doubt we’re all optimistic about Rolovich, but here’s the truth: He’s only been a head coach for four years, and two of those seasons were pretty underwhelming. The Hawaii program was trending up, no doubt. But he spent the vast majority of his adult life on the islands — both playing and coaching — and there’s a lot of room to wonder whether Rolovich has what it takes to be successful, long term, anywhere outside of Hawaii.

I’ve said often that while the Air Raid was super fun, the real secret sauce to the Cougars’ success was simply Leach. We joked about all the happy-and-healthy, do-your-job stuff, but the truth is that it set the tone for a program that ended up filled with really tough, determined individuals that belied the team’s finesse passing attack. Leach created and fostered that mentality through his leadership.

In time, Rolovich could become that kind of secret sauce. But it’s tough to make the argument that he’s already on Leach’s level as we try to set expectations for year one.

So ... how many wins should we all expect?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Cheez-It Bowl - Air Force v Washington State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

OK. Let’s try and distill this all down to the most salient points.

There’s still a lot of talent leftover from an offense that dragged the team to a bowl game last year. However, it’s going to be led by a true freshman quarterback. One recruiting service thought he was a four-star talent, but still — true freshman. And the other guys who are back are learning a new offense, even if it is philosophically similar.

Rolovich has said that the players have been excellent students with good attitudes — again, good culture, good buy-in — but there’s really no substitute for live reps in a read-and-react scheme where the QB and the receivers have to be not just on the same page, but really the same sentence. And while Rolovich might be a very good offensive mind, Leach’s prowess in that regard was generational. There’s almost no way the offense can be the elite unit it was last season.

The defense ... well, they’ll be more experienced. That’s good. If we can’t imagine the offense being anywhere as good as it was last year, we also can’t really imagine the defense being quite as bad — good culture and good buy-in plus a year of growth will almost certainly make a difference here.

Will the losses and gains offset each other? I’m a little hesitant to think they’ll balance out; I have a feeling the offense regresses more than the defense progresses, which probably doesn’t bode well for an improvement on the .462 winning percentage of last season.

To be honest, I’d be a lot more bullish on the Cougars’ chances this season if Mike Leach was still the coach. We just knew what we were going to get — we’d be getting an awesome offense no matter who was quarterbacking and we’d really just be hoping for some marginal gains from the defense under a new coordinator. Rolovich is likely going to need to grow into this job, just like his players, and they all have to do it without the benefit of any kind of soft landing. I mean, I haven’t even tried to figure out what effect the COVID environment might have on all this, because it seems futile to do so. And, WSU actually has one of (if not) the toughest schedules in the conference with having to play the USC Trojans in their crossover game.

How many wins you think this team can achieve probably is a function of your natural disposition — an optimist might see five wins. (I don’t know how, but hey — I’m not an optimist!) Perhaps it’s more useful to look at it this way:

What’s the threshold that needs to be exceeded to satisfy you?

We all can agree that zero wins would be a massive, massive disappointment. I think one win probably is the same. In those two scenarios, the Cougs have underperformed all the factors I just laid out, and I’m not sure anyone is satisfied. I don’t think it’ll lead to grand predictions of Rolovich’s demise, but nobody will be happy.

Two wins? Ehhhhhh ... maybe? That one probably depends on style points, and who the two wins are against, because given everything I’ve written, I definitely could see a two-win season as a possibility. Remember: This is a team that only won three conference games a year ago with one of the best offenses in school history.

Three wins? It seems like it would be hard to be too upset about being darn near .500.

Four wins? You’re going bowling for the sixth consecutive year.

Five wins? You’re probably in contention for the Pac-12 North.

The tipping point, to me, is in that two- or three-win range. You can probably still feel good about where the program is heading under Rolovich if that’s where they land, especially since the weirdness of COVID will allow you to talk yourself into all sorts of interesting conclusions. Less than that is going to feel pretty crappy to me.

What say you?


How many WSU wins would satisfy you in 2020?

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