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5 Reasons Why Washington State can be a Dark Horse Pac-12 Contender in 2016

Luke Falk

Luke Falk

Football has risen from the dead in Pullman, Wash. For the first time in a decade, Washington State enters a season with a real chance to make some serious noise in the Pac-12.

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Related: Washington State Cougars 2016 Preview and Prediction

The Cougars are coming off their first winning season in 11 years. With so many pieces in place for 2016, delivering a satisfying encore should not be a problem. Washington State is not favored to win a Pac-12 North title with Oregon, Stanford and Washington all expected to have strong seasons. But things do line up for the Cougars to act as a spoiler.

Here are five reasons why Washington State could be a dark horse Pac-12 North contender in 2016:

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1. Easy schedule

Washington State has arguably the easiest schedule of any Pac-12 team. UCLA, Oregon, Washington and Arizona all visit Pullman this year. Stanford is the only truly challenging Pac-12 road game for the Cougars. Outside of conference play, Washington State's toughest game is a trip to Boise State.

2. Luke Falk is an elite QB

When Mike Leach has the right quarterback to run his Air Raid offense, it is practically unstoppable. Luke Falk is that quarterback. In his first full season as a starter a year ago, Falk torched one defense after another. The former walk-on totaled 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns through the air while completing 69.4 percent of his passes. If Falk stays healthy, expect to see more of the same in 2016.

Related: Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2016

3. Receiver depth

Not only is Falk back, but so is the bulk of his supporting cast. Only one of Falk's top receivers from 2015 graduated. The Cougars got an extra boost when leading receiver Gabe Marks opted to return for another season instead of declaring for the 2016 NFL Draft. Marks is a true playmaker. He led the Pac-12 with 15 touchdown catches in 2015 while posting 1,192 receiving yards.

4. Sound running game

Running doesn't normally factor into pass-happy offenses under Leach. He is usually content to let quarterbacks throw until their arms fall off. That may change a little this season. Washington State has a stable of experienced and talented backs who can take a little defensive pressure off Falk. Freshman James Williams looked impressive in spring camp. He will join a trio of returning backs in Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington. Wicks led the group a year ago with 610 rushing yards on 5.7 yards per carry.

5. Winning culture now in place

Last season, the Cougars finished with nine wins for the first time since 2003. It also marked the second time in three seasons Washington State reached a bowl game under Leach. The program has finally risen from the abyss where it sank after Mike Price left Pullman more than a decade ago. Leach has the right players in place for his system and confidence is sky high now that these players know they can win in the Pac-12.

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.