Washington State has taken on a new identity within the Pac-12 after spending many seasons buried in the league cellar. The Cougars have won 17 games over the past two seasons and were in the mix for a division title until mid-November last season.
Plenty of pieces are in place – starting with QB Luke Falk – to make Washington State a serious threat in the Pac-12 North again in 2017. The Cougars will not be the division favorites with their Apple Cup rival Washington returning many key players from last year's Pac-12 championship team. Still, it isn't a stretch to think they can play their way into the mix with the Huskies and Stanford and be a tough out for every opponent.
Here are five reasons why the Cougars could emerge as a dark horse Pac-12 North contender once again in 2017:
1. Falk is back
There's no question that Luke Falk will be the Pac-12's top passer this season and could even make a push to be the FBS leader in many passing categories. Falk knows head coach Mike Leach's offense like the back of his hand and executes the playbook with ease. As a junior last season, Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes. He led the Pac-12 in all three categories. Additionally, 172 of his 443 completions in 2016 went for 10 or more yards.
2. Ground game is strong
This is no one-dimensional Air Raid offense. Washington State has enough talented running backs to keep defenses from simply zeroing in on Falk on every snap. Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams all combined to rush for 1,645 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. They also proved to be adept pass catchers out of the backfield, contributing an additional 1,014 yards and seven scores on receptions. Running behind an offensive line with three returning starters should make it easy to get equal or better production in 2017.
3. Defense can keep up with the offense
Washington State doesn't simply count on overwhelming opponents with a potent passing attack. The Cougars are also good at getting stops when necessary. They finished 2016 ranked in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 both in scoring defense (26.4 ppg) and total defense (405.9 ypg). The defense should be tough again with defensive leaders like Hercules Mata’afa and Payton Pueller back this fall. Mata’afa emerged as an elite defensive end as a junior in 2016, totaling five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss. Pueller has led the Cougars in tackles each of the last two seasons and ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 93 stops a year ago.
4. Falk has a crop of dynamic receivers
Losing a tandem as effective as Gabe Marks and River Cracraft isn't easy to overcome for any offense. The good news for the Cougars is the cupboard is far from empty. Tavares Martin should take a step forward after finishing with 728 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. Martin ranked second on the team in receiving yards behind Marks. Kyle Sweet and Isaiah Johnson-Mack and junior college transfer Easop Winston all have the speed, hands and other tools to excel in the Washington State offense as well.
5. Cougars can build momentum
The schedule is set up to give Washington State a shot at getting off to a great start in 2017. The Cougars open with five consecutive home games before hitting the road to face Oregon in their second Pac-12 game. Washington State's two toughest road games – at Utah and at Washington – are not until late November. Boise State, USC, Stanford and Colorado all come to Pullman this season. If the Cougars can successfully defend their home turf, it wouldn't be a stretch to see them near or at the top of the Pac-12 North entering November.
— 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.