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CougCenter Staff | August 29, 2016

2016 WSU Football Season Preview

For the first time since 2004, Washington State opens a football season coming off a bowl game victory. The Cougars won nine games last season. Nine! I don't have to remind any long-suffering WSU fans that those nine wins match the combined win total from 2008-2011. Finally, it was the breakthrough season Cougar fans have been waiting for.

Now, the question is: What will WSU do for an encore?

A successful football season is immensely enjoyable. It's been fun to re-watch games from last season and continue to celebrate the success. Like a sunset over the Palouse, however, a successful football season is a magnificent thing while it happens, but it fades quickly. The attention almost immediately turns to the next successful season.

WSU football fans are a deprived bunch, so expectations may be lower here than they might be at another school. That doesn't mean there aren't any expectations, though. The 2003 Holiday Bowl win certainly didn't keep us warm during the sad, cold nights in the years to follow. As great as the Sun Bowl win against Miami was, WSU fans aren't going to cling to it like a lifeline as if it's the 1995 Mariners season.

Last season was great, now it's time for another one. At least it is if WSU is going to build the type of program Mike Leach and Bill Moos hope they are. With recruiting, building a good college football program is a long game. There is no bigger key than following success with more success. A great season helps recruiting. Back-to-back great seasons really help recruiting. Stringing three, four or five seasons in a row can change a program forever.

WSU proved it could. Now it has to prove it can again.

-- Mark Sandritter

The Gravitron Diaries

Flashing back to late November 2014, I attended my last Cougar football game. An emotionless dismantling of a WSU team that seemed halfway to Vahalla before kickoff was a culmination of eleven years holding a season ticket without seeing a team with a winning record. I remember leaving the stadium, packing up the tailgate and not even bothering checking into the hotel; just drove straight home. For the next two hours, conversation was jovial, save for brief moments when we felt obligated to discuss the travesty we just spent quality time, money and miles to witness. Really only one conclusion was made:

"Maybe we should take a year off to see if we miss it."

And of course I missed what turned out to be a pretty fun season and, more importantly, everything else that comes with Cougar Football Saturday. I have six SEVEN Saturdays with some of my best friends, grilling red meat and drinking brown liquor. We blast music out of old fraternity speakers loud enough usually for someone from Campus Security to drop by and tell us they can hear Billy Ocean from the stadium three blocks away. And even after four-ish years of school and eleven years of season tickets, my heart still beats faster coming over that last hill on the way into town overlooking Grand Ave. Likely because it knows that 7,000 calories are heading its way in mere minutes.

So of course I'm coming back. But just how good is this Cougar team?

It has seemed highly logical that with the giant step forward the Cougs took last season and the amount of players returning, that fans should be excited about their prospects. A discussion with friends a few days ago ended with someone saying 8-4 would be a disappointing year. 8-4! At WSU! A few years ago, can you even fathom being disappointed with 8-4? Yet here we are, because when someone tells you they think WSU will go 8-4, you just kind of dread where those four losses are coming from.

So we are pretty much every other school in the country and I couldn’t be happier to finally be back in their company.

Yet, as much as we're flexing fan muscles at this point, seemingly nobody agrees with us. I legitimately can't remember a Power 5 school winning nine games, returning 17 starters and not being ranked the following season. Some local pundits are predicting WSU placing fourth or in some cases fifth (!!!) in the Pac-12 North this season. I began my thought with "I can't believe how great the divide between fan expectations and media predictions is" and finished my thought with "oh wait, it's the divide that nearly every football team in America deals with every season." So we are pretty much every other school in the country and I couldn't be happier to finally be back in their company.

So welcome back to being relevant, Cougs! Feel free to call whichever sports radio talk show or type in ALL CAPS on your favorite message board about the LACK OF RESPECT your team is receiving. You've been waiting for this for a decade and it's finally your chance! When a writer says WSU is going to finish 7-5 but then adds a caveat that they "wouldn't be surprised if the Cougs win the whole thing," don't let them hedge! We saw you pick us losing to Colorado!

Enjoy this season. Keep that chip on your shoulder, because nobody believes in your team. Except you. Except that one time you sat out an entire season because of a bad Apple Cup.

There's always Billy Ocean back at the parking lot. Never forget that.

Go Cougs.

-- Kyle Sherwood

Alex Grinch's 1st season wasn't beginner's luck

Alex Grinch wasn't the "splash" hire some hoped for at defensive coordinator, but last year proved he was the absolute best man for the job. The defense gave up nearly 10 fewer points per game; cut the number of explosive pass plays in half; was right at the conference averages for yards per play (5.77), yards per pass attempt (6.8), and plays per touchdown (25.4); and the Cougs were at the top end of the conference in percent sacks per pass attempt (7.0 percent) and percent negative plays (9.8 percent).

You don’t make that sort of jump without establishing a specific vision, and one thing is apparent anytime Coach Grinch gives an interview: His rhetoric is always clear and on point. A glimpse of the coaching staff’s social media lets you know exactly where the brand is: speed, lots and lots of speed.

The defensive scheme is simple to allow them to play fast yet multiple enough to keep offenses at a disadvantage. The Coug D was referenced anonymously by Pac-12 coaches last year as one of the toughest to prepare against for that very reason. Coach Grinch blurs the lines between "traditional" defensive alignments more than most coordinators in college football.

It's almost antiquated to call anything a 4-3 or a 3-4 anymore; if you ask a coach which of those alignments they use, they'll probably say "yes." You hear some of it when they talk about "cross-training" defenders at different positions; their roles can change on the fly from their base alignment in this defense, and they need to have a varied skillset.

Multiple fronts

Most often -€” not always -€” the Cougs will show a Nickel as their base (below). This is purely semantics based on what the Nickel (Parker Henry) is going to do after the snap. More run support against the offense's formation strength? Then he's a little more linebacker than anything else and it's a functional 4-3. More coverage responsibilities? That'd make him a little more DB and the defense is set in a 4-2-5. Add to that the "Rush" end position that also occasionally drops to either the flats or hook-to-curl zones and you get a highly variable defense from a single pre-snap look.

BAP_base nickel

Coverage responsibilities are really tough to sniff out. If one thing could (hesitantly) be called the WSU "base" defense, it might be a modified Tampa-2. This coverage was pioneered by Monte Kiffin on Tony Dungy's Super Bowl winning Tampa Bay Buccaneer team in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

WSU runs it out of Nickel instead of the 4-3 the Bucs used, and appears to vary coverage underneath. Sometimes it's man, sometimes it looks more like the pattern-matching elements between the corners and Nickel that you see with Alabama's defense under Nick Saban.

BAP_Tampa2

Safeties drop to their halves, and you see the Mike linebacker (Peyton Pelluer) fly to a deep middle zone if he reads pass, like a Cover 3 safety. It's highly effective against any in-cutting route and doesn't necessarily advertise what coverage is happening on the outside.

A big concern heading into this season is sustainability. How reproducible are those 13 interceptions and 11 recovered fumbles? Coach Grinch preached a "Takeaway Ball" mentality last year and reaped dividends immediately, so was it luck?

Starting with fumbles, the Cougs forced 16 fumbles -€” a conference high -€” but only recovered 11 out of 25 total fumbles for a 44 percent rate, which ranks 78th nationally. They weren't inordinately lucky. Bouncing footballs trend mostly toward a 50 pct recovery rate in large analytical datasets, and you would probably assume they're 50/50 propositions. The technique and skill utilized to get the balls bouncing is not.

After intercepting a conference low three passes in 2014, the Coug D hauled in 13 (seventh in the PAC-12) last year. When talking INTs, we make them relative to passes broken up ... or how often do the DBs intercept a pass when they get their hand on the ball? Typically, that rate is between 21-24 percent and WSU was just a shade over at 26 pct last season, which isn't really far enough away to suggest some sort of regression this fall.

The Cougs only defensed (broke up or intercepted) 14.8 percent of all the pass attempts they faced, a hair below the conference average of 16 percent. They ranked 73rd nationally in a comparison of passes defensed to total incompletions. Neither of these suggest crashing back to reality in 2016, and more likely indicate areas of potential growth.

The Speed D, formerly known as Coug D (follow coach Roy Manning on twitter) has one major area where they were decidedly less than average: forcing three-and-outs. Wazzu ranked 107th in third down conversion rate (44.5 percent) and allowed the opponent to move the chains over 82 percent of the time they completed a pass on third or fourth down. Only 18 percent of opponent drives ended in a three-and-out, while the conference average was 25 percent, which amounts to a couple drives a game.

If the Cougs can work at getting off the field and improve on being average everywhere else, this defense is only going to continue getting better under Coach Grinch.

-- Brian Anderson

CougCenter Hour season preview

-- Michael Preston

Gabe Marks is a man on a mission

Heading into the season, Gabe Marks has been hyped by many as this season's top collegiate receiver. That may actually be selling him short. The Biletnikoff Award watch lister has a chance to become the most prolific receiver Mike Leach ever produced.

Marks -- entering this season with 227 receptions, 2,559 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns in his career -- needs 76 receptions to pass Texas Tech running back Taurean Henderson for the most receptions by a Leach coached player. Wes Welker has the most receptions for a Leach receiver with 259, and Marks could top that by the start of Pac-12 play.

Michael Crabtree, in just two seasons, has the most receiving yards (3,127) and receiving touchdowns (41) by a Leach coached receiver. Marks needs 568 yards and 18 touchdowns to top both categories. That would require a full-blown fire emoji season that's certainly possible with that Luke Falk kid behind center.

From a Washington State historical perspective, Marks, who is already the program's all-time leader in receptions, needs just nine touchdowns to pass Dom Williams (30) and Jason Hill (32) to set the WSU receiving touchdowns record. With 649 more receiving yards, Marks would pass Jason Hill (2,704), Brandon Gibson (2,756), Dom Williams (2,889) and Marquess Wilson (3,207) to break the all-time WSU receiving yards record.

What I'm saying is Gabe Marks is a very good receiver and we're all very lucky to get to watch Marks and Falk play backyard football in Martin Stadium this season.

And while the records are cool and fun, Marks, who has already established himself as arguably the best receiver to ever suit up for Washington State, is hungry for so much more, as noted when announcing his decision to return to the Palouse for one more year.

"When I signed with WSU in February of 2012, I wanted to be a part of a special group of guys that turned the program around, and we did just that in 2015," Marks tweeted. "I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of building a winning tradition at WSU. I wouldn't trade these last four years for anything in the world.

"After the heartbreaking loss to Stanford this season, I realized how close this program is to being a Pac-12 champion and I also remember the No. 1 goal I had when committing to WSU, and that was to get the Cougars back to a Rose Bowl. It was after that disappointing game that I made the decision to return to WSU for my senior season."

That's the sound of a man on a mission -- who despite all the records, the hype, and background noise -- is going to put his body on the line to reach the goal he set when he arrived.

Gabe Marks has some "Unfinished Business" to tend to, and work starts Saturday.

-- Britton Ransford

Martin Stadium Beer Guide

Just in case you've been tucked under an offseason rock, I'm here to inform you that Martin Stadium will be selling alcoholic beverages on the main concourse this fall. None of the hard stuff, but there will be beer and cider. You may be wondering "but how will I choose which Miller and/or Coors and/or MillerCoors brand to drink, Craig?" No worries, I am here to guide you.

Some of the drinks below I recently sampled just for this exercise. Others I could not locate or didn't want to buy an entire six pack of just for the research. Others still I have had plenty enough of in my lifetime that I really didn't need to go back for one more taste.

The selection is based on a list reported by Cougfan, and I'm sure it will rotate somewhat throughout the season, as it has in the Club level previously. Each beverage comes with ratings from some of the major beer rating websites/apps out there. Here we go!

Blue Moon Belgian White—5.4% ABV

Untappd: 3.48 | BeerAdvocate: 78 (Okay) | RateBeer: 35 (Style: 42)

Probably a gateway to craft beer for you at some point. I had it again; it tastes like a heavy dose of orange peel masking some liquid corn (which they are rumored to use to fill out the grain bill). My rant on Blue Moon is that it is at the same price level as a lot of better local craft brews, but that isn't relevant here.

Blue Moon IPA—5.9% ABV

Untappd: 3.28 | BeerAdvocate: 79 (Okay) | RateBeer: 39 (Style: 13)

If you are expecting an IPA—you will be disappointed. Decent hop aroma descends into a worse-tasting version of Blue Moon.

Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy—4.2% ABV

Untappd: 3.49 | BeerAdvocate: 72 (Okay) | RateBeer: 14 (Style: 95)

It isn't a shandy, per se, because it is made with lemon flavor and not lemonade. But hey, it's refreshing, and early-season games might be hot.

Leinenkugel's India Pale Lager (IPL)—6% ABV

Untappd: 3.43 | BeerAdvocate: 80 (Good) | RateBeer: 60 (Style: 82)

This is the best collection of ratings overall. Haven't had it, but "good, if there aren't better options" is the BeerAdvocate review that speaks to me. That really is what we are aiming for here, and the slightly higher ABV doesn't hurt, either.

Coors Light—4.2% ABV

Untappd: 2.32 | BeerAdvocate: 51 (Awful) | RateBeer: 0 (Style: 2)

You've had it. You know it.

Miller Lite—4.17% ABV

Untappd: 2.38 | BeerAdvocate: 55 (Awful) | RateBeer: 0 (Style: 2)

Same as above.

Coors Banquet—5% ABV

Untappd: 2.67 | BeerAdvocate: 64 (Poor) | RateBeer: 1 (Style: 11)

Best option at this presumably lower price level.

Redd's Apple Ale—5% ABV

Untappd: 3.12 | BeerAdvocate: 65 (Poor) | Ratebeer: 7 (Style: 12)

Never had it. If you are ordering this, it is probably your jam.

Smith & Forge Hard Cider—6% ABV

Untappd: 3.42 | RateBeer: 16 (Style: 21)

Really sweet. "This needs a fireball shot" is my girlfriend's review. Do with that information what you will.

CougCenter Official Recommendation:

Considering alcoholic content and overall quality, the Leinie's IPL has to be the beer to go with. Now go forth, and enjoy drinking legal alcohol in the lower bowl of Martin Stadium!

-- Craig Powers

Gamble-Tron's WSU Prop Bets

Welcome to what will probably be the dumbest part of the preview. Luckily for you, the most handsome CougCenter author signed up to do it. When he had to back out, the job fell to me. /rimshot

Since my favorite part about writing for the website (besides interacting with the commenters, of course) is writing about gambling, I figured I'd come up with some prop bets for the 2016 season. Tell me where you stand. Let's go.

Luke Falk touchdown passes + interceptions (-200) vs. the WSU defense's sacks + interceptions (+150):

In 2015, Luke Falk threw 38 TDs and eight INTs. In 2015, the WSU defense tallied 33 sacks and 13 INTs. Even a History major knows that both of those equal 46. The smart money is probably on Falk. After all, he missed almost two entire games last season. However, Hercules Mata'afa is a year older, and those raw defensive backs from 2015 should be even better this season.

Gabe Marks receiving yards and touchdowns (+100) vs. the combined rushing yards and touchdowns for the top three running backs (-120):

In 2015, Gabe Marks collected 1192 yards and 15 TDs. In 2015, the three-headed monster of Wicks, Morrow and Harrington rushed for 1195 yards and 12 TDs. The running backs are the slight favorite for a couple reasons. First, I expect Boobie Williams to get more carries than Keith Harrington. Second, Gabe Marks isn't putting up those numbers again. No way, no how. Right, Gabe?

Luke Falk rushing TDs (-125) vs. Fat Guy TDs (+105):

The odds here are purely based upon the likelihood that Falk tries to sneak one in near the goalline. However, don't underestimate the ability of a defensive lineman to mimic Xavier Cooper and return a fumble for a TD. Odds that both of these happen in the same game? Let's go -1000. The hope here is that they both happen in the Idaho game, or maybe the Apple Cup.

Fake punt or kick touchdown (+300) vs. Kick return or punt return touchdown (-250):

Look, I don't think I need to tell you how long it's been since the Cougs housed a return. I also don't need to tell you how long it's been since WSU tried a fake punt. /remembers the Cal game and immediately goes into convulsions. I think that'll leave a bad taste in Leach's mouth for a while. In the meantime, Tavares Martin's human joystick abilities may just be the recipe we're looking for this season.

WSU scoring margin (-10000) vs. my average sleep time on Saturday nights (+eleventy billion):

In 2015, WSU won by an average of of 32.4 to to 28.8, for a difference of 3.6 points per game. Even though I expect that to increase, I live in the Eastern time zone and have two boys who are never asleep past 7 a.m. NEVER. RIP my sanity until mid-January, at least. Thank god for beer.

-- PJ Kendall

Schedule Breakdown

Week 1: Saturday, Sept. 3

Opponent: Eastern Washington Eagles

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

A 60-yard field goal from Andrew Furney was needed to seal the deal against Eastern the last time it played in Martin Stadium. Also notable: WSU quarterbacks combined for a total 37 pass attempts. It was a weird second game of what would continue to be a weird first season for WSU under Mike Leach.

This year, the Eags bring a veritable stud receiver in Cooper Kupp and a top 15 FCS ranking into Pullman with eyes on being the second consecutive FCS team to upset the Cougs at home on opening weekend. Presumed starter at quarterback Gage Gubrud (who I hear is nicknamed "8-Gage") completed 16-of-17 for 202 yards and three TDs in their latest scrimmage, adding another 132 yards on the ground.

Eastern's offense is no joke.

Week 2: Saturday, Sept. 10

Opponent: Boise State Broncos

Venue: Albertson's Stadium, Boise, Idaho

Boise State opens the season with a visit to the Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns and faces Oregon State the week after hosting WSU. The Cougs are Boise State's big ticket item on their schedule this season. Outside of BYU, not many other teams have a chance at making an undefeated or one-loss Boise look respectable enough for a high ranking at the end of the year.

They need to beat Wazzu, and most likely they need to stomp the Cougs for any hope at a New Years' Six bowl.

Week 3: Saturday, Sept. 17

Opponent: Idaho Vandals

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

Idaho begins its two-season FBS swan song with Middle Tennessee State in the Kibbie Dome, followed by a trip across the Cascades to play the Huskies. Then WSU gets a shot at them.

Head coach Paul Petrino -- who was the first head coach to be visibly cussed out by Mike Leach on television during a post-game hand shake (to my recollection) -- may have pulled up on the stick just enough to keep them from dismantling on rock bottom, but things still aren't very good and don't project to be very good any time soon.

Week 4: Saturday, Sept. 24

Bye weeks are good weeks. Still not a fan of having it this early in the season but hey, worked last year right?

Week 5: Saturday, Oct. 1

Opponent: Oregon Ducks

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

Oregon plays Virginia at home, Nebraska on the road, and Colorado at home before tripping to the Palouse. There's no way that FCS grad-transfer game can be pulled off twice --€” and -- people shouldn't be down on Oregon, their skill position guys are really good are dueling storylines heading into the 2016 season.

At this point, Montana State transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop hasn't had a lot of the glowing reviews Vernon Adams had last year, and Oregon had a hard time winning when Adams wasn't in the game, even if production was still there. Add to that a total shift in defensive philosophy under new coordinator Brady Hoke -€” who recently said, "we are a long way from being any kind of defense" -€” and you get some idea that things may not be as easy during conference play as they had been for the Ducks.

For those of you that like to track GameDay possibilities, this would be a big one if both teams enter it unblemished.

Week 6: Saturday, Oct. 8

Opponent: Stanford Cardinal

Venue: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, Calif.

This is how the Stanford Cardinal open their season; home against Kansas State, then USC, followed by trips to UCLA and UW. A consistently tough Big-12 team followed by three of the best in the PAC-12. After that stretch? At Notre Dame. Nestled right in between? Little Ol' Wazzu.

There might not be a more easily defined let-down / look-ahead spot on any schedule in college football. Stanford and UW have had intensely physical games the past few years and the Cougs might actually be in a position to take a Body Blow TheoryTM advantage against the team that usually doles it out.

Week 7: Saturday, Oct. 15

Opponent: UCLA Bruins

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

We should get a good look at who the Bruins are during their opening match-up with former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and the Texas A&M Aggies in Jerry World. Jim Mora has told anyone who'd listen this off-season about how tough, and physical, and hard-nosed their new power run game offense is going to be.

We'll see. They open conference play with Stanford. The next week they get Arizona at home, followed by a trip to Tempe before coming to Pullman. UCLA is the leading candidate to take the South and has the most important opponent in the South not named USC the week after WSU (Utah). If UCLA is as physical as they think they are, it could be really tough facing them the week after the Cardinal ... on top of all the special things Josh Rosen brings to the table.

Week 8: Saturday, Oct. 22

Opponent: Arizona State Sun Devils

Venue: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

ASU gets USC (away) and UCLA (home) before tripping up to Colorado in the weeks before WSU heads down to Tempe. They get to look ahead to going to Autzen the week after. Former offensive coordinator and BFF of Todd Graham, Mike Norvell, left to be the head coach of Memphis over the off-season, and the Sun Devils are still adjusting to what the offense will look like under Chip Lindsey and their new quarterback, whenever they decide to announce who it'll be.

Week 9: Saturday, Oct. 29

Opponent: Oregon State Beavers

Venue: Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.

Oregon State went through the growing pains everyone expected them to go through last season. Then they lost their defensive coordinator to BYU. Gary Andersen is doing the most with what he has but it still takes some time to build a roster from essentially spare parts. We should know.

Wazzu's trip to Corvallis is sandwiched between a nasty part of OSU's schedule. The Beavers host Utah, go to Washington, host WSU, then go to Stanford and to UCLA.

Week 10: Saturday, Nov. 5

Opponent: Arizona Wildcats

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

Arizona is replacing their 3-3-5 with Marcel Yates' 4-2-5 from from Boise State, and the Wildcats have some questions around who will step up at outside receiver. And some questions about how good Anu Solomon can be.

In what you should be noticing is a theme, WSU faces Arizona after a brutal stretch in their schedule. Home against UW to open conference play, then at UCLA, at Utah, and home against USC before a bye week mercifully calls time out. Then they host Stanford. And after all of that, they come up to Pullman for a November game.

Week 11: Saturday, Nov. 12

Opponent: California Golden Bears

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

Cal is replacing six wide receivers and a No. 1 draft pick at quarterback who could only help them win eight games last season. They've recruited pretty well and have a lot of talent on that roster but you can't help but assume that much lost production will lead to a little bit of a step-back this season.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: home against Oregon, at USC, home against UW, at WSU, home against Stanford and UCLA. That's five opponents in the Pre-Season Top 25 and five games in California, bisected with a trip to the Palouse in November.

Week 12: Saturday, Nov. 19

Opponent: Colorado Buffalos

Venue: Folsom Field, Boulder, Col.

Colorado is slowly improving, enough so now that some pundits are etching them into the "sneaky good" category of potentially stealing a couple games. As long as Sefo Liufau is healthy that is entirely possible for this team next season. I'm not saying this is WSU's trap game (if they're sitting at three or fewer losses) but I'm not, not saying it either.

The Buffs host UCLA and trip to Arizona before WSU comes to Folsom and sit on the tail of WSU's most winnable section in their schedule.

Week 13: Saturday, Nov. 25

Opponent: Washington Huskies

Venue: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.

This game could very well decide who represents the North in the Conference Championship. It's been a long time since entertaining that thought was anywhere close to this realistic.

The Huskies close out the season hosting USC and ASU before their trip to Pullman for the Apple Cup.

-- Brian Anderson

Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios

Best-Case Scenario

Following an easy 49-14 win over their Highway 195 rivals Eastern Washington, head coach Mike Leach was pleased backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski got in a quarter and a half's worth of snaps, going 19-for-27 for 290 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The following week was decidedly closer for the Cougs in Boise in a high scoring affair. But an interception by Shalom Luani on an overthrown deep pass from Brett Rypien sealed the game for the Cougs 45-41, the first Pac-12 team to emerge victorious on the blue turf since the last time WSU beat BSU at the beginning of the century. Boise State fans wonder why they ever thought they could join the Pac-12 in the first place and resign themselves to begging the Big 12 for admission.

After cruising past the Idaho Vandals and earning a No. 20 ranking in the AP poll, the Cougs rise to the occasion of College Gameday coming to town, dispatching the defenseless Oregon Ducks 38-21 in front of a raucous and sold out crowd. The Cougs are 4-0, and the liquor at Valhalla is flowing like Paradise Creek after a torrential late fall rain.

The athletic department commissions another poster for the Dusty grain elevator to read "FALK YEAH, HE GETS THE HEISMAN!"

It sets up a tremendously important early season match-up with the Stanford Cardinal, who (after beating the Huskies the week before in Seattle, 24-17) are not only ranked in the top-10, but are the only threat to the now-No. 16 Cougs, who can put a stranglehold on first place in the North. The teams go back and forth for 59 minutes in Palo Alto, but a late-game run from Christian McCaffery for 30 yards and a touchdown sends the Cougs to their first defeat, 31-28.

Still ranked No. 21, the Cougs get back on track against UCLA in front of another sold out crowd for Homecoming. We get our first look at Angry Luke Falk, as the redshirt-junior quarterback throws for seven touchdowns, four of them to Gabe Marks, as WSU pounds the No. 11 Bruins 56-31. Jim Mora is so mad, he spontaneously combusts on the sideline and Dan Guerreo spends the evening wandering Palouse hills, wondering if he can up the seat-back cost for basketball season tickets without donors noticing. Bruins Nation publishes a 5,000-word credo on why the ghost of John Wooden is the best man for the job of athletic director. Talk of Luke Falk and the Heisman Trophy begins to heat up and the athletic department commissions another poster for the Dusty grain elevator to read "FALK YEAH, HE GETS THE HEISMAN!"

The now-No. 15 Cougs cruise past a still-rebuilding Oregon State team before having a little trouble with the ASU Sun Devils, whom they squeak by, 41-34, in Tempe. Now in the top 10 for the first time in more than a decade, WSU boat races Arizona for Dad's Weekend.

Three games left to go but still one game back of Stanford in the Pac-12 North, the Cougs need a miracle since trading one win for a loss won't do it as Stanford has the tiebreaker. WSU comes out and makes Sonny Dykes wish he'd just left Cal for wherever the hell would take him, beating the Golden Bears 58-24. Then it happens: Oregon beats Stanford on a last second 50-yard scramble for a touchdown from Taylor Allie.

Following a resounding defeat of the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder, 49-17, all members of Cougardom huddle around their televisions to watch The Big Game. Washington already notched their second loss of the conference season as Myles Gaskin fumbled at the goal line against ASU and the Sun Devils beat the Huskies in a Seattle windstorm 13-10, knocking them out of title contention. Tied at 31 a piece as Stanford is driving in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal need to pick up a 4th-and-15. Francis Owusu catches an out route near the marker but a swarm of Cal defenders hold him short of the line. Davis Webb takes Cal down the field to the Stanford 40 and a miracle 57-yard field goal try from Matt Abramo is good. As the students rush the field, Abramo rips his jersey off to reveal a WSU t-shirt and shouts "OPERATION ‘SHIP WAS A SUCCESS, COACH!"

Despite not needing to beat the Huskies because they hold the tiebreakers, the now-No. 6 Cougars do anyway, beating the tar out of their still-in-a-post-Thanksgiving haze rivals 63-14. Chris Petersen announces after the game he'll be taking the USC job after the Trojans fire Clay Helton and Jake Browning decides he has had enough and transfers to Michigan. Luke Falk earns himself a trip to the Heisman ceremony and Gabe Marks is named a finalist for the Biletnikoff after catching 115 passes for 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns.

WSU meets the surprising Utes in Santa Clara, making mincemeat of Utah, 45-28, and the Cougars manage to sneak their way into the CFP Top 4, earning the No. 4 spot and a date with Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Luke Falk lifts the Heisman trophy, Marks wins the Biletnikoff and every WSU running back is named to the All-Conference first team. The entire defense posts a Taylor Taliulu-produced music-video about their turnover prowess from the regular season that becomes the toast of YouTube.

WSU puts up a valiant effort against the Crimson Tide but falls short as Luke Falk throws a late-game interception and the Cougs fall 27-24 to Alabama. After the game, Falk announces he'll return for his senior season, Mike Leach is given a 5-year extension and buys The Coug, promising 25-cent pounders after every WSU win.

Worst-Case Scenario

The Cougs start the season with another lackluster performance against an FCS team as Cooper Kupp torches them for 250 yards, but WSU manages to squeak by their regional rivals 28-27 thanks to a late game touchdown run from James Williams.

WSU heads to Boise and gets throttled by a well-oiled BSU team, 49-28, as Boise State fans renew their online call for the Pac-12 to kick the Cougs out and welcome them with open arms.  To make matters worse, Gabe Marks suffers a season ending knee injury and Robert Barber will be out for at least six weeks with compartment syndrome.

WSU comes home to what they believe is an easy game against their Palouse rival but the Vandals give them everything they can. It takes an 80-yard, 90-second touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter from the Cougs to get past Idaho 35-31. College Gameday doesn't even sniff Pullman for the following weekend, and with good reason, as the Ducks boatrace the Cougs 49-28 in front of a sold out crowd. Luke Falk throws three first half interceptions and the liquor at Valhalla is flowing like Paradise Creek after a torrential late fall rain.

The Cougs come out uninspired against Stanford, losing 35-14 with points only coming in garbage time as David Shaw, well on his way to his 35th Rose Bowl, pulls his starters to begin the fourth quarter. Luke Falk comes out of the game with minor ankle sprain but tells reporters after the game he feels fine.

College Gameday doesn't even sniff Pullman for the following weekend, and with good reason

But the next week against UCLA? Disaster. Falk tears a ligament in his ankle trying to stay inbounds on a scramble and redshirt freshman Tyler Hilinski is thrust into the spotlight. The Bruins make easy work of WSU, 38-24, as Josh Rosen throws and runs for five touchdowns as his Heisman campaign heats up. Jim Mora moons Section 4 on his way out of the stadium and Dan Guerreo wonders if he can up the seat-back cost for basketball season tickets without donors noticing. Bruins Nation writes a 5,000 credo on why Guerreo is the only man for the job after the Bruins achieve a top-five ranking.

Hilinski puts on a Luke Falk debut repeat, helping the Cougs beat the punchless Beavers, 45-21, in Corvallis, but the Tempe curse emerges again as the Sun Devils pound WSU, 52-31. The Cougs come home and manage to scrape together a victory against Arizona for Dad's Weekend, thanks in large part to Darrien Molton's two-interception performance.

Davis Webb carves up the Cougs for seven touchdowns the following week and the Cougs limp into Boulder with Gerard Wicks out for the remainder of the season because of a torn labrum. More late game heroics from the offense in Boulder, as Hilinski hits Dezmon Patmon for a 75-yard touchdown with just 30 seconds left to down the Buffs, 31-28.

UW comes into the Apple Cup with a chance at the Pac-12 championship game and doesn't miss, beating the Cougs 41-17 in front of a now angry crowd at Martin Stadium. Luke Falk declares for the NFL Draft, citing injury concerns and Houston hires Mike Leach after Tom Herman leaves to take the head coaching job with the Houston Texans.

-- Michael Preston

Season Predictions

Once upon a time, the authors at CougCenter were considered a roundly pessimistic bunch. It now appears we're trying real hard to shed that reputation, if the authors' predictions for the season are to be believed.

Only one out of 15 respondents picked WSU to go worse than 8-4 in the regular season, with a whopping 12 respondents picking the Cougs to have nine or 10 wins in the regular season.

Because of this, it's no surprise that the authors are overwhelmingly in favor of the Cougs in most matchups. In an interesting twist, however, respondents were unanimous in their expectation that WSU would lose in its road trip to Stanford in the fifth game of the year. I suppose that seems like the most likely loss on the schedule.

Other games that figure to be tough, based on author expectations? Both UCLA and ASU are considered toss ups (the latter likely because WSU rarely plays well in Tempe), while about a third of the authors picked Boise State to win that massive non-conference clash in week two.

Only four of the 15 authors picked WSU to lose the Apple Cup. Those four have been fired from staff.

Name EWU @BSU IDAHO ORE @STAN UCLA @ASU @OSU ARIZ CAL @COL UW Total
Michael Preston WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA ASU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 9-3
Kyle Sherwood WSU BSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU UW 8-4
Jeff Collier WSU BSU WSU WSU STAN WSU ASU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 9-3
Aaron Polevoi WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 11-1
Mark Sandritter WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 10-2
Gavin Porter WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 10-2
Zane Murfitt WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU UW 9-3
Craig Powers WSU BSU WSU WSU STAN WSU ASU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 9-3
Nick Nordi WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN WSU ASU WSU ARIZ WSU WSU WSU 9-3
Scott Cresswell WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN WSU ASU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 10-2
Chet Broberg WSU BSU WSU WSU STAN WSU ASU WSU WSU WSU WSU UW 8-4
Jeff Nusser WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN WSU ASU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 10-2
Brian Anderson WSU WSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU 10-2
PJ Kendall WSU BSU WSU WSU STAN UCLA WSU WSU WSU WSU COL UW 7-5
Britton Ransford WSU BSU WSU WSU STAN WSU WSU WSU WSU WSU COL WSU 9-3

-- Jeff Nusser

Design: Mark Sandritter | Contributors: Jeff Nusser, Kyle Sherwood, Brian Anderson, Britton Ransford, Michael Preston, Craig Powers, PJ Kendall | Photos: WSU Athletic Communications | Cover photo: William Mancebo/Getty Images

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