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Washington State Football: 2018 Cougars Preview and Prediction

Jalen Thompson, Washington State Football

Jalen Thompson, Washington State Football

Mike Leach's rebuild in Pullman has been a huge success: The Washington State Cougars have won 26 games in the last three years and have finished no worse than third in the Pac-12 North. The 2018 season, however, could be a struggle. The Cougars lost record-setting QB Luke Falk and, for the first time, don't have a ready-made replacement. Gardner Minshew, a grad transfer from East Carolina, is the most promising short-term solution. The bigger issue could be on defense, due to the loss of dominating lineman Hercules Mata'afa and, more important, coordinator Alex Grinch. In three years at Wazzu, Grinch tranformed the Cougars' defense from one of the worst in the nation into one of the best in the Pac-12. Bowl eligibility is still a very realistic goal, but don't expect this team to be a factor in the North Division race.

Previewing Washington State Football's Offense for 2018

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Even with a system that places so much on the shoulders of its quarterback, Washington State fans haven't had too many sleepless nights during the Mike Leach/Air Raid era worrying about who's taking snaps for the Cougars. Leach's last two starters, Luke Falk and Connor Halliday, rank first and sixth, respectively, in career Pac-12 passing yards. Together, they threw more than 200 touchdowns. But after seven years of reliability at the QB position, the Cougars may finally have a dilemma. Six quarterbacks are in the running to succeed Falk, and not one has taken a snap at WSU. Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, both redshirt juniors, came out of spring camp as the frontrunners, along with true freshman Cammon Cooper. If one of those three can't rise to the occasion, the job could fall to East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew, who arrives in August.

WSU's pass-first offense rarely defers to the run game, but when it does, James Williams won't be a bad No. 1 option. The shifty junior is eager to take on feature-back duties after rushing for 395 yards last season.

Tay Martin pulled in six touchdowns in his final six games, and the rangy, athletic sophomore could emerge as one of the conference's top pass-catchers this season. The Cougars have strong options in the slot, too, with Renard Bell, Jamire Calvin, Robert Lewis and Kyle Sweet.

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The offensive line wasn't as cohesive as it needed to be in 2017, so starting from scratch with three new starters and a new position coach could help matters. Left tackle Andre Dillard is sturdy and savvy, and dependable center Fred Mauigoa returns.

Previewing Washington State Football's Defense for 2018

The Cougars are introducing a new coordinator (Tracy Claeys) but retaining many of the same concepts that helped them finish in the top 10 nationally last year in tackles for a loss per game (7.9) and total turnovers (28). How effective the pass-rush will be without All-America tackle Hercules Mata'afa remains to be seen, but end Nnamdi Oguayo could command the double teams Mata'afa got last year.

Linebacker is a rich position for the Cougars, who get Peyton Pelluer back for a sixth season after the defensive captain obtained another year of eligibility via medical hardship. A wave of young middle linebackers -- Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman -- are also capable of shining for WSU.

Dynamic safety Jalen Thompson becomes the leader of the secondary after leading the Cougars in tackles (73) and interceptions (four). WSU has decent talent at all four spots, but the Cougars desperately need depth.

Previewing Washington State Football's Specialists for 2018

Jack Crane, who occasionally handled kickoffs, will see his job title expand and will likely replace Erik Powell as the full-time placekicker. WSU added strong-legged junior college transfer Oscar Draguicevich to patch up its punting shortfalls. Jitterbug receivers Calvin and Bell should give the Cougars some pop in the return game.

Final Analysis

In each of the past two seasons, Washington State fell four quarters shy of its first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. It's unlikely that the race for the Pac-12 North will come down to the Apple Cup again, and fans may need to temper their expectations after WSU followed an eight-win season in 2016 with nine wins in '17. That doesn't mean that the Cougars will backslide too much. They may just have to find some middle ground: Competing for a title in the rugged Pac-12 North seems unrealistic, but a bowl game is within reach.

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NATIONAL RANKING: 64
PAC-12 NORTH PREDICTION: 5