Going into 2017, it felt like the stars had aligned for the Washington State Cougars.
Luke Falk slinging the rock, All-American Cody O’Connell opening running lanes for the three-headed monster of James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks, and Hercules Mata’afa wreaking havoc on the defense. Even other coaches felt — as told in the annual “anonymous coach” post by Athlon — that if WSU was ever to make noise and push for a championship under Mike Leach, last season was the season to do it.
Given the fact that WSU both returns the fewest starters of any team in the Pac-12 and endured a a terrible offseason, I understand why the media would pick the Cougs to finish fifth in the North. Even after three consecutive bowl appearances, I can’t shake the feeling that the other shoe is always about to drop (as in, any given season has a high probability of WSU going 3-9 or worse).
The 2018 version of the Cougs will introduce us to many new faces, but I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. One of the primary reasons is the progress Mike Leach and his staff have made on the recruiting front since his arrival in Pullman.
I remember last year (or maybe the year before), on one of the coaches’ shows, there was a conversation about the high quantity of freshmen and sophomores in the two deep. The feedback from the coaches was that underclassmen pushing into the depth chart is the goal and that if you’re trying to out recruit yourself every year compared to the prior one, a team should see their new talent pushing for time. I think the chart below shows that wasn’t just coach speak.
This chart looks at the difference in 247sports.com’s four-year recruiting average for every Power 5 team since 2012 (shout out to Tableau Public user quesohusker for posting the dataset). The goal of this view is to understand what teams have seen the most positive or negative change in their four-year recruiting ranking, as that should give us a decent understanding of the overall talent level of the roster.
The only Power 5 team that has improved more than WSU since 2012 (when Leach arrived) is Arizona State (18 spots better from 2012-2017). WSU is tied for second with Duke, having improved their four-year average ranking 14.7 spots over that same time period.
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I saw that and my chest puffed out a little bit for our Cougs. However, in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend. While WSU has improved a lot in the overall depth of the team as far as recruiting rankings go, it still isn’t the rosiest of pictures.
Heading into 2012, things were dark. WSU was on par with Southern Miss and Purdue ranking in the low 60’s for their 4 year recruiting average. While things have improved, the Cougs aren’t putting down a bunch of top 30 or 40 classes. They’ve pulled themselves up into lower part of the 3rd tier of Pac-12 recruiting, ranked right around Arizona, Utah and Cal, with a four-year average of 48.
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That isn’t horrible company to be around, given Utah is super consistent and we all remember what Arizona and Cal both did to WSU last year, but it isn’t on the level of tier 2 (Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State) and we ain’t ever going to be on USC’s level when it comes to recruiting.
It’s fall camp, there are a ton of unknowns at really key places on this team, and I wouldn’t knock you if you weren’t feeling too optimistic about 2018. However, I think WSU is going to be OK. I believe the floor is right at that 6-7 win mark, primarily because of the improvement in recruiting since Leach arrived. It’s only a few weeks until we’ll see if Leach’s “Next Man Up” mantra has replenished the 2018 rendition of the Cougs with players that can compete and win in the Pac-12, but I think we’ll be relatively pleasantly surprised.