Man, it’s just about that time: The Washington State Cougars begin their 2017 football season two weeks from today. Two weeks!
That means the 2017 CougCenter WSU Football Preview has arrived.
The past two years, we’ve put all our content into one, massive, gorgeous piece, which you could digest at your leisure. This year, we’re going to do it a little bit differently: We’ll post one story a day, each day, publishing around noon leading up to the season opener on Sept. 2 against Montana State, then tie them together in what we call a "hub" (like this one) and a "StoryStream" (like this one).
Considering we launched this site nine Augusts ago — as Paul Wulff was getting ready to begin his first season at the helm of the program — I sometimes have to figuratively pinch myself at the reality of the situation in which we currently find ourselves.
The Cougs have won 17 games in the last two seasons after winning just nine in the entirety of Wulff’s tenure. Doing better than Paul Wulff certainly isn’t the bar, but after slogging through the worst stretch of football in the history of the program, it still amazes me that a good portion of us ended last season thinking, "Yeah, eight wins was fine, but losing those last three was so disappointing."
Truth be told, I actually love that.
Some people might remember an ill-fated column I wrote after the Cougs kicked away a game to Cal in 2015, in which I asked the question: "What kind of football program do you want WSU to be?" The premise was simple: Mike Leach’s record at WSU after three-plus seasons was 14-27, and that sure didn’t seem good enough to me. I said that I had become convinced that Leach would never replicate the success he had at Texas Tech. (Oops. That didn’t age well.)
A fair number of people got a good laugh at my expense, since WSU beat Oregon the next week, kicking off a run of six wins in seven games, with the lone loss being to eventual Pac-12 champ Stanford by just two points. (I’ve always had great timing.)
I’ve never regretted writing that column, though, because I believed it: When we hired Mike Leach and dropped $100 million on facilities, it served as "our entry into big boy college football," and "inching toward mediocrity" wasn’t good enough any more.
The target, in my mind, was "a bowl game nearly every year and competing for a conference title occasionally."
It appears we have arrived: The Cougs probably will begin the season ranked in the Associated Press poll, are squarely on course for their third consecutive bowl game, and maybe — just maybe! — could jump up and compete for a conference championship this season.
The more earnest among you will point out that WSU did that last season, when a win over UW would have put us in the Pac-12 Championship. However, the margin in that game against a team with elite talent suggested that WSU wasn’t really competing for a conference championship.
There are reasons to think the Cougs won’t compete for one this year, either.
But there also are reasons to think they might.
WSU’s best teams have traditionally been loaded with experience, and the 2017 squad has a lot of it — while not full of seniors, the Cougs return 16 of 22 starters. WSU’s best teams also have traditionally had a veteran, superior quarterback — I’d say Luke Falk fits that bill. And it helps that last season’s North Division champ is probably coming back to the field just a little bit.
A conference championship certainly isn’t the expectation. But expectations have (rightly) been raised, and it’s so much fun to now be able to think about the possibilities.
Next up on Sunday: Hercules Mata’afa is set to once again terrorize the Pac-12