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Washington State Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule

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Replacing a star quarterback and a top-notch defensive coordinator means Washington State could be in for a rocky road in 2018. Mike Leach has done well to revive the football program in Pullman with 26 wins in the last three seasons. Getting to a bowl game this year could be one of the more impressive feats in his coaching career.

Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach

The schedule won't make it easy to get to six wins. Washington State has some tough home games against Washington, Oregon, Utah and Arizona. Paired with challenging road games at USC, Stanford and Wyoming and it's easy to see that getting more than three or four victories isn't a guarantee.

Here's a look at how the opponents that the Cougars will face this fall rank from weakest to strongest:

12. Sept. 8 vs. San Jose State

Breaking in a new quarterback probably won't matter that much against the Spartans. Unless San Jose State takes a major step forward on defense, slowing down Washington State may prove to be virtually impossible. The Spartans had one of the worst defenses among FBS teams last season, giving up 41.7 points and 499.3 yards per game.

College Football Rankings: San Jose State

11. Sept. 15 vs. Eastern Washington

Big Sky Conference opponents can be tricky for the Cougars. Eastern Washington handed them a 45-42 loss when the two teams met in 2016. The Eagles return 18 starters and are widely considered the lead contender to win a Big Sky championship this season. Senior quarterback Gage Guburd ranked second in the FCS in total offense (357.8 ypg) last season.

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10. Oct. 6 at Oregon State

New head coach Jonathan Smith faces a long rebuild in Corvallis. The Beavers have gone winless in Pac-12 play twice in three seasons and likely won't escape the Pac-12 North cellar this year either. Washington State has earned four straight wins in the series while averaging 44.5 points per game in those contests. Oregon State finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, total offense and scoring defense last season.

College football rankings: Oregon State

9. Sept. 1 at Wyoming

Playing in Laramie is never an easy task. Fortunately, for the Cougars, Wyoming is in a similar rebuilding situation on offense where it must replace quarterback Josh Allen and running back Trey Woods. Wyoming will lean on a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that allowed just 17.5 points per game a season ago.

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8. Nov. 10 at Colorado

The Buffaloes want to prove their 2016 Pac-12 South title is no aberration. Climbing back from last season's last-place finish in the division may be easier said than done after losing their top running back and three top receivers. Colorado also needs to improve on defense after giving up 6.1 yards per play and 208.0 rushing yards per game in 2017.

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7. Nov. 3 vs. California

No team stymied Washington State's offense more effectively last season than the Bears did in their 37-3 win. California should take another step forward this season. Ross Bowers and Patrick Laird are both back to lead a potent offense. Bowers passed for 3,039 yards and 18 touchdowns while Laird rushed for 1,127 yards and eight scores.

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6. Nov. 17 vs. Arizona

Khalil Tate absolutely shredded the Cougars last season. Tate threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 146 yards and another score to power a 58-37 Arizona victory. Playing under new head coach Kevin Sumlin should only make him and the rest of the Wildcat offense infinitely more dangerous.

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5. Sept. 29 vs. Utah

The Cougars have beaten the Utes three straight times, but will find it difficult to get a fourth consecutive win. Utah returns several starters on both sides of the ball. Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss both enjoyed breakout seasons a year ago. If those two stay healthy, Utah's offense could finally catch up to its defense and special teams.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

4. Oct. 20 vs. Oregon

Justin Herbert was sidelined with an injury when Washington State beat the Ducks last season. With Herbert back at full strength, Oregon has the edge. Herbert is one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12 entering this season. His passing ability and decision-making gives the Ducks the fuel they need to fly high on offense.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

3. Oct. 27 at Stanford

As long as Bryce Love is in the backfield and the Cardinal defense performs at its typical level, getting into the win column against Stanford will be a chore. This season, Stanford's offense may be at peak level usually reserved for the defense. The Cardinal return eight starters from a unit that produced 32.4 points and 388.6 yards per game a year ago.

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2. Sept. 21 at USC

The Cougars pulled off a mammoth upset a year ago when they upended the eventual Pac-12 champs. Doing it two years in a row will be a tough task. USC has to replace Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II, and Deontay Burnett on offense, but the Trojans have plenty of weapons in their arsenal. The Trojans return a deeply experienced defense, led by senior linebacker Cameron Smith, so the offense will have time to get up to speed.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

1. Nov. 23 vs. Washington

Breaking that Apple Cup losing streak offers nearly impossible odds. Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin have taken turns shredding the Cougar defense over the last three seasons. Both players bypassed the NFL draft and returned for their senior seasons. Their previous three Apple Cup games led to blowout wins for the Huskies. No reason to believe anything will change in year four, especially when Washington returns nine starters from a defense that led the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.1 ppg) and total defense (298.0 ypg).

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Games. Games. And more Games!

-- 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.