Football matters again at Washington State. The Cougars broke through last season, finishing with a winning record and a bowl game victory for the first time in 11 seasons. Is Washington State a one-year wonder or is head coach Mike Leach's group a team on the rise?
Prospects are favorable for the Cougars to build on their nine-win season in 2016. Many key offensive weapons are back – led by quarterback Luke Falk and top receiver Gabe Marks. Falk passed for 4,566 yards and 38 touchdowns a year ago. Marks, his favorite target, totaled 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns on 104 catches.
The schedule definitely favors Washington State's chances for making noise in the Pac-12 North again this season, with most of the toughest opponents coming at home. Here's a look at the Cougars' 2016 regular season schedule, ranking opponents from easiest to toughest.
12. Sept. 17 vs. Idaho
Winning the Battle of the Palouse should not present much of a challenge. Washington State leads the all-time series 71-16-3 and has won eight straight over the Vandals since suffering back-to-back losses in 1999 and 2000. The Cougars have won by an average margin of 30.9 points in those contests.
Idaho, which is dropping from FBS to FCS in 2018, has enjoyed one winning season since 1999. Last season, the Vandals won more than one game for the first time since 2010.
11. Sept. 3 vs. Eastern Washington
No one needs to tell Washington State how dangerous Big Sky teams can be. A 24-17 upset loss to Portland State in the 2015 season opener snapped a five-game winning streak for the Cougars against Big Sky teams.
Eastern Washington will likely find a way to keep things close. The Eagles took Washington State to the wire in 2012 before losing 24-20. Eastern Washington has played a Pac-12 team each of the last five seasons. Four games have been decided by a touchdown or less, with the Eagles defeating Oregon State 49-46 in 2013.
10. Oct. 29 at Oregon State
Oregon State hit rock bottom last season and Washington State took full advantage. In a 52-31 victory, the Cougars scored on their first seven drives and rolled up 520 yards of total offense. It marked a second straight win in the series for Washington State.
Things may not be much different in 2016 if the Beavers don't improve on defense. Oregon State yielded a Pac-12-worst 6.4 yards per play last season. They also ranked 114th among FBS teams in scoring defense, 109th in sacks and 101st in interceptions.
9. Nov. 12 vs. California
Replacing a quarterback like Jared Goff, the no. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is never easy. When you mix in the fact that the Bears also need to replace Goff's top six receivers, who combined for 3,878 yards and 38 touchdowns a year ago, it adds up to some major rebuilding on offense.
Without Goff around, Washington State has a good chance to notch its first home win over California since 2001. He torched the Cougars for 390 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-28 Bears' victory last season. Washington State has won just once in its last 11 games against California.
8. Nov. 19 at Colorado
Colorado came so close to finally turning a corner in the Pac-12 last season. Four of the Buffaloes' eight losses in league play came by a touchdown or less. That breakthrough could be delayed another year with major questions at quarterback.
Three-year starter Sefo Liufau suffered a Lisfranc foot fracture near the end of last season and likely will not be close to 100 percent entering fall camp. Liufau has totaled 7,397 yards and 49 touchdowns over his career. Top receiver Nelson Spruce also is gone, so Colorado could face a serious challenge generating consistent offense. The Buffaloes struggled in that department against the Cougars last year, netting just a field goal in six drives into Washington State territory.
7. Oct. 22 at Arizona State
Last year's 38-24 win over the Sun Devils marked just the second time the Cougars have beaten Arizona State in the last 12 games of the series. Washington State is now looking to win in Tempe for the first time since 2001.
If there ever was a season to do it, this might be the one. Arizona State must replace four starting offensive linemen, quarterback Mike Bercovici and top receiver D.J. Foster. The Sun Devils also need to find a way to shore up a porous defense that surrendered an FBS-worst 337.8 passing yards per game last season – the most in school history.
6. Nov. 5 at Arizona
The Cougars have beaten the Wildcats twice in the last three seasons. Their last home win in the series, though, came in 2003. Offensive shootouts have defined each of the last two meetings. Arizona has averaged 50.5 points in those contests and Washington State has averaged 41 points.
A revamped Wildcat defense will face the Cougars this season. Arizona brought in new defensive coaches and installed a new scheme after surrendering 466.8 yards and 35.8 points per game in 2015. If quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson can stay healthy and bounce back to their 2014 form, a more explosive offense will soften the learning curve for the defense.
5. Sept. 10 at Boise State
If you love lots of offense, this game could be the one that breaks the scoreboard. The Broncos ranked 15th among FBS teams in total offense last season, averaging 501.5 yards per game. With several key offensive weapons back, Boise State should present a stiff challenge on the Smurf Turf.
It all starts with quarterback Brett Rypien. He totaled 3,353 yards and 20 touchdowns in his debut season. Rypien will get plenty of help in the backfield from Jeremy McNichols. The junior running back totaled 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns on 240 carries a year ago.
4. Nov. 25 vs. Washington
Washington State extended its Apple Cup losing streak to three games after the team's offense crashed and burned with Falk sidelined because of a concussion. Washington leads the Apple Cup 70-32-6. The Cougars haven't lost four in a row to the Huskies since dropping six straight from 1998 to 2003.
Washington will be tough to deal with on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin return to build on strong freshman seasons. Browning threw for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns in his debut season while Gaskin churned up 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Huskies also should be tough again on defense after leading the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 ppg) a year ago.
3. Oct. 1 vs. Oregon
A 45-38 upset win over the Ducks in Eugene signaled that 2015 would be a special season for the Cougars. It helped Washington State snap an eight-game losing streak to Oregon. Now the Cougars are looking to beat the Ducks in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2002 and ‘03.
Can they do it? It all could hinge on who is the new Oregon quarterback. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop brings true dual-threat potential at quarterback. Prukop finished with 7,347 yards of total offense during his Bobcat career. Freshman Travis Jonsen also is in the mix to become the primary signal-caller. The Ducks will be set in the backfield with Royce Freeman, a junior coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
2. Oct. 15 vs. UCLA
Last season's 31-27 upset victory over the Bruins snapped a five-game losing streak to UCLA. This season's game should present another fun battle between Falk and Josh Rosen - arguably the top two quarterbacks in the entire Pac-12.
Rosen had a strong debut season for the Bruins. He threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes. UCLA will have some holes to fill around him after losing several playmakers on both sides of the ball – including leading rusher Paul Perkins. Falk could face a challenge from UCLA's defense. Every starter returns in a secondary that shaped a Pac-12-best pass defense (203.2 ypg) for the Bruins in 2015.
1. Oct. 8 at Stanford
Washington State has lost eight straight games against the Cardinal. Last year's 30-28 loss ranks among the most painful. Stanford rallied from a 12-point second half deficit behind 219 combined rushing yards from Kevin Hogan and Christian McCaffrey. The Cardinal held on when Drew Powell missed a 43-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Getting over the hurdle won't be any easier this season. McCaffrey returns after totaling 2,019 rushing yards, 645 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on offense in 2015, so that side of the ball should be strong even with Hogan graduated. If Stanford can fill holes left by defensive linemen Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett and inside linebacker Blake Martinez, the Cardinal should be equally formidable on defense.
— 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.