This is the next installment in our series of stories previewing the 2021 Washington State Cougars football season. For other installments, click here.
There’s more to trying to figure out where the Cougs’ record will end up 2021 than simply, “Can they beat (that team)?” There are all sorts of factors that come into play over the course of a season that can impact the winnability of any given contest.
Let’s explore some of those factors.
Home: Utah State Aggies
Saturday, September 4th, 8 PM PT
2020 was a challenging year for every collegiate athletic department. The Utah State Aggies got blown out in their first four games by a combined score of 149-to-45 then fired head coach Gary Andersen. Who also maybe kind of wanted to quit? It was a weird situation at the time but perhaps fitting for a guy who walked away from a perfectly fine job at Wisconsin to coach at Oregon State.
In comes Blake Anderson from Arkansas State, who had one of the most emotionally impactful stories in college football a couple of years ago. Coach Anderson is thought of highly in the G5 ranks, taking the Red Wolves to a bowl six seasons in a row, every season in his tenure, before 2020.
There’s hope and promise he can turn Utah State back into a Mountain West contender. Just not this year. The Aggies are projected to rank 112th by Football Outsiders and will be consistently low on whatever ranking system you look up.
This is less a game for Wazzu and more a smell test to make sure the program hasn’t spoiled. The Cougs are favored by 16 points and it shouldn’t be near that close if WSU considers itself a bowl team.
Home: Portland State Vikings
Saturday, September 11th, 3 PM PT
Hello darkness, my old friend.
Portland State lost the only game they played in the 2020 season, a 10 AM date on April 17th, 2021 with the Montana Grizzlies in Missoula. It wasn’t competitive (7-48).
The Vikings fly to the islands take on Hawaii the weekend before coming all the way back to the Palouse.
…this can’t happen again, right?
Home: USC Trojans
Saturday, September 18th, 12:30 PM PST
The No. 16 Trojans are highly rated, relative for the Pac-12, and are once again entering a season where everyone outside the program wonders, “this has to be enough talent to overcome Clay Helton?” USC finished strong last season, clawing back in a few games to earn a spot in the championship against
Kedon Slovis returns at quarterback for his third season. At tailback, the Trojans are stacked with Vavae Malapeai back as a super senior and Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram. Ingram had 67 receptions for the Longhorns last year and will be a tough handle in USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid.
Todd Orlando oversees a very aggressive defense, adept at takeaways and loaded with young pass rushers like Korey Foreman.
They deserve every bit of the hype they’re getting.
USC opens their season at home against San Jose State before hosting Stanford the next weekend. After the trip to Pullman, the Trojans return home to host Oregon State.
Away: Utah Utes
Saturday, September 25th
The Utes ended their three-year streak of South division titles last season, dropping their first two games to USC and Washington before beating OSU, Colorado, and Wazzu. They open this season with Weber State, who lost in the first round of the 16-team FCS playoff this past Spring, before taking on BYU in Provo. The Utes travel to San Diego State after the Holy War before hosting the Cougs.
No. 24 Utah has only gathered more hype as the season got closer, when a lot of people looked up and realized they weren’t the only ones who thought the Utes were underrated – they’re easily the most popular “Pac-12 sleeper” pick among media types.
The Utes go to the Coliseum to face USC the week after and have a home date with ASU the week after that. This sits the Cougs right before the two toughest, most important South division games on their schedule, and two weeks removed from a rivalry game.
Utah on-boards a 3,000-yard passer in Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer. Brewer was part of that 1-11 to 11-1 turnaround under Matt Rhule over three seasons. Brewer is one of the more talented quarterbacks Utah has had recently and has experience winning at a high level. They return their whole offensive line and Utah’s defense being good is one of the more consistent things in the PAC-12.
It’s not exactly ideal to play two South division contenders back-to-back in September before you’ve worked all the kinks out.
Away: California Golden Bears
Saturday, October 2nd
Cal, now in the fifth year under Justin Wilcox, is a fairly well-defined team. You know what you’re getting with Cal. A good, perhaps borderline great, defense and an offense that scout teams don’t envy. Chase Garbers is back at quarterback with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who was the OC for the Oakland Raiders in 2015-16 and Denver Broncos in 2017-18.
The offense had little time to work with Musgrave before the 2020 season and a Cal optimist would think huge jumps in competency are possible in 2021.
The Bears open their conference slate at Washington the week before hosting Wazzu and get a bye the week after the Cougs are in Berkeley.
Home: Oregon State Beavers
Saturday, October 9th
Rivalry Week! OSU head coach Jonathan Smith and Nick Rolovich have had beef ever since Rolovich accused the Beavers of tampering with recruits when he was at Hawaii. The Beavs are entering their fourth season under Smith, who started with a 2-10 season and climbed to 5-7 before 2020 appeared to be another step back, or at least sideways.
Oregon State does not have an easy conference schedule. They open at USC, then get Washington at home before coming to Pullman. A bye week followed by Utah waits on the other side, and they close the season with Arizona State in Corvallis and the Civil War in Autzen.
Home: Stanford Cardinal
Saturday, October 16th
Stanford hasn’t been picked to be a division bottom dweller very often under David Shaw but that’s where they find themselves on more than a couple prediction lists this year. Stanford returns only 55% of its offensive production and is replacing David Mills at quarterback and wide receiver Simi Fehoko.
Santa Clara County laid some difficult logistics on the Cardinal during the 2020 season, forcing Stanford to be away from home for a whole month. Practices, game preparations, traveling, all were more challenging for Stanford than nearly anyone else and the Cardinal still rattled off four nail-biter wins to close the season.
Washington State sits right smack dab in the middle of some remarkably unfortunate scheduling for Stanford. The Cardinal open the season with Kansas State, then play away games at USC and Vandy before their first game back home on Sept. 25th against sneaky decent UCLA.
Stanford then hosts No. 11 Oregon, goes to Tempe on Friday night to play No. 25 ASU, comes all the way up to Pullman the week after, then plays host to No. 20 Washington and No. 24 Utah on the following Friday. This is one of the tastier let-down, look-ahead sandwiches you’ll see schedule makers come up with.
You have to play the four best teams in a row. Wait, also go to Pullman in the middle of that.
Home: BYU Cougars
Saturday, October 23rd
The other Cougars went 11-1 in 2020 behind quarterback Zach Wilson, beating UCF by 26 points in the Boca Raton Bowl. That offense finished third nationally in scoring and likely won’t be replicated by whatever offense BYU puts on the field this year.
BYU goes to Baylor the week before coming to Pullman and gets Virginia at home the week after. By the time we see BYU in Martin Stadium they will have played Arizona, Utah, ASU, and Utah State. Wazzu should have a real good idea who they are by then.
Away: Arizona State Sun Devils
Saturday, October 30th
Arizona State has a roster loaded with talent. Unrelatedly, they are under serious NCAA scrutiny for potential recruiting violations. Assistant coaches Chris Hawkins, Prentice Gill, and Adam Breneman have all been placed on leave while the NCAA investigates allegations around hosting recruits on-campus during the dead period from March 2020 to June 2021, extended due to the pandemic.
The Sun Devils brought in Zak Hill from Boise State to be the new offensive coordinator after the 2019 season. The run game excelled in 2020, averaging 6.4 yards per attempt, and the passing game was explosive, if inconsistent. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is one of nine returning offensive starters, and the whole defense is returning.
WSU again finds itself in another sandwich. No. 25 ASU plays at No. 24 Utah the week before hosting the Cougs. The Sun Devils get to look ahead to hosting No. 15 USC the weekend after and going to Seattle for No. 20 Washington the week after that.
Saturday, November 6th
Better late than never?
Away: Oregon Ducks
Saturday, November 13th
The Ducks, after filling in for a UW team that couldn’t play, beat USC in the championship game last season and lost to Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl. That was without several studs on defense. Oregon re-upped with a Top-10 recruiting class that includes 5-star freshman quarterback Ty Thompson.
Oregon is every bit the conference show pony at the moment. The defense is nasty and full of NFL draft picks, the offense is fast and explosive, and they’re recruiting at a much higher level than just about everyone in the conference.
The Ducks continue the sandwich theme for Wazzu, playing at Washington the week before and at Utah the week after. The heat check for the Ducks is week two in Columbus against Ohio State. That game alone will level-set the whole conference in the eyes of people outside the West Coast.
Home: Arizona Wildcats
Friday, November 19th
The Wildcats sit just below Rutgers in the Football Outsiders ranking at 103rd and that feels about right. New head coach Jedd Fisch takes over after Kevin Sumlin’s tenure sort of fizzled out to an 0-5 season in 2020. Fisch has now coached at every single professional and collegiate institution. That’s barely an exaggeration.
The Wildcats will look more like a pro-style offense than during the Sumlin years but no one has any real expectations for them this season. Former WSU quarterback Gunner Cruz transferred down after 2020 and will split time with Will Plummer in their opener against BYU.
Arizona gets to play the beloved mid-November Pullman game after having spent the last month hopping between Arizona and California. If it’s not cold on Oct 16th in Boulder or rainy on Sept 25th in Autzen, this Pullman game is likely the only time the Wildcats see jacket weather all season.
Away: Apple Cup
Friday, November 26h
You know what it is.