Season openers have turned into automatic losses for Washington State in recent seasons. Under head coach Mike Leach, the Cougars are 0-5 in the first game of the season. The last two in those string of defeats — Portland State in 2015 and Eastern Washington in '16 — have stung the most, coming against FCS teams.
Washington State has a chance to break the jinx when it hosts Montana State on Saturday. The Cougars seem to have every advantage they need against the Bobcats. Their biggest edge is a potent offense helmed by senior quarterback Luke Falk. For a deeply inexperienced Montana State team that won only four games a season ago, stopping the Air Raid is a monumental task.
This is the ninth meeting between the two schools. Washington State leads the series 8-0 and beat the Bobcats 23-22 in the most recent meeting in 2010.
Montana State at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 10:30 pm ET
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Washington State clear the first week hurdle?
Seeing Washington State drop games to Big Sky teams in season openers is one of the most puzzling elements from the past two seasons. Both years, the Cougars bounced back with strong showings in the Pac-12 North and eventually reached a bowl game.
Different things have gone wrong for Washington State against FCS opponents the past two years. Against Portland State, the Cougars couldn't finish drives. They totaled 411 yards on offense but couldn't punch it in. A missed field goal, a turnover on downs and a late interception sealed their fate. Moving the ball wasn't a problem against Eastern Washington; getting stops against the Eagles was the issue. Washington State allowed 606 total yards and 28 first downs in the loss.
The Cougars last won a season opener in 2011, when they knocked off Idaho State 64-21. They have lost 10 of their last 11 openers overall.
2. A ton of new faces for the Bobcats
Montana State gives inexperience a whole new meaning. A total of 37 new players are on the Bobcats roster after 26 underclassmen exited the program during the offseason. It makes the rebuilding job for second-year coach Jeff Choate that much more complicated.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Murray will at least give the Bobcats a steady hand on offense. Murray won the starting job midway through last season and earned Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors after finishing with 1,638 total yards of offense. Murray will need to improve his accuracy to help Montana State take a step forward. He completed only 44.8 percent of his passes last season.
Mac Bignell anchors the Bobcats defense and could be a cause for concern for Washington State. The senior linebacker led Montana State with 14.5 tackles for a loss last season. Bignell is also the school's career leader in forced fumbles with eight.
3. Luke Falk gunning for more school records
Records are going to fall left and right when Luke Falk takes the field this season. That assault on the record book could start as soon as Saturday. Falk has a shot at setting a pair of school records against Montana State. He only needs to throw for 412 yards to pass Connor Halliday for the career passing yardage mark. Falk can also pass Halliday in career TD passes with two touchdown passes.
Given Falk's usual standard of excellence, both records are well within reach in the first week. He is the NCAA's active leader in career passing yards (10,893), touchdowns (89) and passing yards per game (351.4). Last season, Falk finished fourth in the FBS both in passing yards per game (343.7) and passing yards (4,468). His completion percentage (.700) ranked second nationally behind Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield.
Falk already owns a school-record 23 career 300-yard games. In 10 of those contests, he eclipsed the 400-yard plateau.
Things seem to be falling into place for Washington State to win a season opener under Leach for the first time. The Cougars have a powerful offense and are facing a very raw Montana State team that is likely to finish somewhere near the Big Sky cellar. FCS over FBS upsets happen every year but, for once, Washington State won't be on the receiving end of one.
Prediction: Washington State 35, Montana State 17
— 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.