Can Washington State turn quarterback Luke Falk's final season into the best one yet under head coach Mike Leach? Expectations are higher than ever for the Cougars after back-to-back winning seasons and bowl games. Falk has all the tools to make Washington State's offense operate at light speed and make the Cougars a factor in the Pac-12 North title race once again.
The schedule sets up favorably for Washington State to build momentum early in the season. Many of the team's toughest opponents will visit Pullman. The two toughest road games – at Washington and at Utah – are not until November.
Here's a look at Washington State's 2017 schedule, ranking opponents from easiest to toughest:
12. Sept. 2 vs Montana State
Season openers against Big Sky teams have turned into a nightmare for Washington State. The Cougars opened with losses to Portland State in 2015 and Eastern Washington in ‘16. It's tough believing that this streak will extend to a third consecutive season. Washington State is 7-0 all-time against Montana State – most recently edging the Bobcats 23-22 in 2010.
Montana State struggled offensively last fall in Jeff Choate's first season at the helm. The Bobcats ranked 107th in the FCS in passing, totaling just 155.9 yards per game. If sophomore quarterback Chris Murray can develop as a passer, Montana State could be a bigger threat in 2017. Murray is already a solid runner. He led the Bobcats in rushing with 860 yards and 12 touchdowns on 138 carries last season.
11. Sept. 23 vs Nevada
Few teams veer wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other on defense than Nevada did last season. The Wolf Pack boasted the top passing defense in the Mountain West, allowing just 158.4 yards per game. They were toothless against the run, however, yielding 297.6 yards per game to rank last in that category among FBS teams.
Nevada will rely on its running game and ball control to counteract the porous run defense. James Butler is one of the top running backs in the Mountain West. Butler had a strong junior season, totaling 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. David Cornwell, an Alabama transfer, is expected to push Ty Gangi for the starting job at quarterback. Cornwell is a pro-style quarterback while Gangi is more of a dual-threat option.
10. Oct. 13 at California
Defense will be a bigger priority for California under new head coach Justin Wilcox. That's good news for the Golden Bears. Their offense could not do enough to offset a porous defense throughout last season and it ultimately cost Sonny Dykes his job. The Bears ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in both scoring (42.6 ppg) and rushing defense (272.83 ypg).
On offense, California must find a way to replace Davis Webb at quarterback. Webb threw for 4,295 yards and 37 touchdowns in his lone season in the Bay area. Junior Chase Forrest and sophomore Ross Bowers are the top candidates to replace him but neither player has thrown a pass at the FBS level. For now, the Golden Bears will need Tre Watson and Vic Enwere, both 1,000-yard career rushers, to anchor the offense.
9. Oct. 28 at Arizona
Washington State destroyed the Wildcats 69-7 a season ago behind a combined 474 yards and six touchdowns from Falk and backup QB Tyler Hilinski. It was Arizona's worst loss since 1949. Injuries brought the Wildcats crashing down on both sides of the ball. Arizona ranked 100th among FBS teams in scoring offense (24.8 ppg) and 118th overall in scoring defense (38.3 ppg).
If the Wildcats can get better health at quarterback and running back this season, it should lead to some improvements. Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor are explosive runners in the backfield. They averaged 5.8 yards and 6.9 yards per carry respectively in injury-shortened campaigns last season. Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate are also dynamic runners at quarterback. Unfortunately, they are also erratic passers who combined to complete just 55.1 percent of their attempts in 2016.
8. Sept. 16 vs Oregon State
The days of Oregon State being an automatic win for other Pac-12 teams are history. Progress is being made as the Beavers enter their third season with Gary Andersen at the helm. Oregon State took Washington State to the wire in a 35-31 loss a year ago. The Beavers have potential to take another step forward this season if they can stay healthy.
The question of who will run the offense remains unsettled heading into fall camp. Junior college transfer Jake Luton is immersed in a three-way battle with Marcus McMaryion and Darell Garretson for the top spot. McMaryion and Garretson split time as starters last season after Garretson suffered a season-ending injury against Utah. Luton offers tons of potential after throwing for a school-record 3,551 yards and 40 touchdowns at Ventura (Calif.) College last season.
7. Oct. 7 at Oregon
Beating Oregon 51-33 last season provided the spark to a 7-0 start in Pac-12 play for the Cougars. Unless the Ducks make strides defensively under new head coach Willie Taggart and coordinator Jim Leavitt, producing a better result this time around will be challenging. Oregon allowed 518.4 yards and 41.4 points per game a year ago and finished the season ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in both total defense and scoring defense.
As far as the offense is concerned, the Ducks should fly high if quarterback Justin Herbert can build on a strong freshman debut. Herbert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns in nine games while completing 63.5 percent of his passes. Oregon will need everything it can get offensively to improve from a 4-8 season – the worst showing for the program since 1991.
6. Oct. 21 vs Colorado
Washington State's eight-game winning streak last season came to an end with a 38-24 loss to Colorado. The Buffaloes eventually won the Pac-12 South title while the Cougars ended the year with three straight losses. Colorado could present many similar challenges this time around as it tries to prove last year's worst-to-first climb was no one- year aberration.
It won't be easy for the Buffaloes though. Colorado needs to replace eight starters on defense and has big holes to fill on the line and in the secondary. Things should be much smoother on offense. Steven Montez and Phillip Lindsay offer a dynamic one-two punch at quarterback and running back. Lindsay, in particular, broke out as a star in the backfield. He churned out 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry.
5. Sept. 9 vs Boise State
The Broncos earned their first win over Washington State last fall, holding off a second-half rally for a 31-28 victory. Boise State will be a bit more inexperienced this time around when it faces the Cougars. The Broncos replace several starters on both sides of the ball – including standout running back Jeremy McNichols.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien should keep Boise State's offense humming while the Broncos reload at other positions. Rypien has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of his two seasons as the team's starting quarterback. He totaled 299 yards and a touchdown against Washington State last season, although Rypien also tossed a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions that let the Cougars back into the game in the final minutes.
4. Nov. 11 at Utah
Elite defensive and special teams play has helped Utah cement itself as a Pac-12 contender over the past three seasons. Now the Utes could finally catch up on offense after bringing Troy Taylor aboard as offensive coordinator. Taylor comes from Eastern Washington where he helped lead the Eagles to a 45-42 upset over Washington State a season ago.
Utah will need a stronger passing attack to offset the departure of leading rusher Joe Williams. Troy Williams has the tools to be a top quarterback if he can show more consistency. Williams threw for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns a season ago, while completing 53 percent of his passes. In the backfield, Zack Moss and Armand Shyne are front-runners to take over as the team's primary running back this season. The duo split time in the backfield a year ago before their injuries led Williams to return from a month-long retirement.
3. Nov. 4 vs Stanford
Facing Stanford is never easy. The Cardinal find a way to punish teams on both sides of the ball. Washington State prevailed 42-16 last season, but will deal with a Stanford team that is expected to be improved offensively after some ups and downs a year ago.
Stanford returns eight starters on offense and defense. One new starter, Bryce Love, could be headed for a breakout season while taking over for Christian McCaffrey as the team's primary back. Love tallied 783 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry as a change-of-pace runner last fall. If Keller Chryst can fully recover from a January knee injury before the season starts, his play at quarterback should give Stanford's offense an extra boost. Chryst posted a 6-0 record as a starter in 2016.
2. Sept. 29 vs USC
USC is the clear favorite for the Pac-12 South title this season thanks to Sam Darnold. The Trojans became a completely different team after Darnold took over as starting quarterback early last season. He led USC to nine straight wins to close out the 2016 season. Darnold exceeded all expectations in his freshman debut. He threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns while completing 67.2 percent of his passes.
Ronald Jones II adds a legit backfield threat next to Darnold. Jones has piled up 2,069 rushing yards in two seasons. USC's defense also should be tough to deal with as linebackers Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu are anchoring the unit again. Smith led the team with 83 tackles a year ago. Gustin and Nwosu proved to be fearsome edge rushers with 20.5 combined tackles for a loss.
1. Nov. 25 at Washington
Recent Apple Cup games have turned out rotten for Washington State. Washington has won four straight in the series and claimed seven of the last eight against the Cougars overall. Breaking the losing streak won't be any easier for Washington State this fall. The Huskies are as tough on both sides of the ball as they were last season.
Washington featured the top defense in the Pac-12 a year ago, after allowing 17.7 points and 316.9 yards per game. The Huskies also will be strong offensively with Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin back for another year together. Browning threw for 3,430 yards and 43 touchdowns with just nine interceptions in 2016. Gaskin totaled 1,373 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, ranking third in the league in total rushing yards.
— 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.