Mike Leach and the Cougars hope to contend for the Pac-12 North Division title this season
Back-to-back winning seasons punctuated with bowl games have changed Washington State's football fortunes. The Cougars enter a new season poised to be a stiff challenger to Washington and Stanford in the battle for the Pac-12 North crown.
Does Washington State have what it takes to finish on top in 2017? The Cougars have a favorable schedule that offers a chance to build some early momentum. The return of senior quarterback Luke Falk alone gives Washington State favorable odds to take a step forward and potentially avoid another late-season sputter to the finish line. The Cougars return enough key playmakers on both sides of the ball to make some serious noise in the Pac-12.
Athlon Sports polled a few writers to get their take on Washington State’s realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Washington State Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
As long as Luke Falk is directing the offense, Washington State will have a legitimate chance to beat any team it faces this season. Falk is a virtual lock to finish as the Pac-12's top-rated passer this season. He can execute the Air Raid offense with precision. Last season, Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes. More than one third (172-of-443 or 38.8 percent) of his completions went for 10 or more yards.
Falk will have plenty of help downfield and in the backfield. Tavares Martin should take a step forward as the primary receiver after finishing with 728 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. Running backs Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams all combined to rush for 1,645 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. They also proved to be receiving threats, chipping in an additional 1,014 yards and seven scores in that department.
Defensively, the Cougars will be in good shape. Defensive leaders like Hercules Mata’afa and Payton Pueller are back to anchor the defense. Mata’afa emerged as an elite defensive end last season, totaling five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss. Pueller has led Washington State in tackles each of the last two seasons and the linebacker ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 93 stops a year ago. The secondary also is deep and athletic.
The bottom line is Washington State has all the ingredients in place to make a serious run at a Pac-12 North crown. It won't be an easy task, but the good news is that many of the Cougars' tougher opponents – USC, Stanford and Colorado – must travel to Pullman. The two most challenging road games – at Utah and Washington – aren't until late November.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Expect the Cougars to be a factor once again in the Pac-12 North title picture. Quarterback Luke Falk and an underrated set of running backs leads the way for a dynamic offense, which also features All-American guard Cody O’Connell and two other returning starters in the trenches. The receiving corps will miss Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, but coach Mike Leach should quickly find the right answers to help Falk and the high-powered passing attack.
The defense has made strides under coordinator Alex Grinch and returns nine starters for 2017. This unit is anchored by standout end Hercules Mata’afa, and the back seven should be a strength with the return of linebacker Peyton Pelluer, as well as cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Jalen Thompson.
The path to a North Division title will be on the road for the Cougars. Games against Utah, Washington and Oregon are likely to decide how high Washington State climbs in the North and all three are away from Martin Stadium. Additionally, a crossover game against USC – a top-five team for 2017 – doesn’t make the path any easier. I’m taking eight wins for the Cougars in 2017, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team reach nine victories.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Perhaps it's fitting that the most isolated Pac-12 program is also the one you hardly hear about when talking about preseason expectations. Don't sleep on the Cougars though, who should be contending for the North Division crown well into late November given their schedule and how much the team is returning. Luke Falk is one of the most underrated players in the country (not to mention one of the toughest) and the front seven has a chance to be one of the best groups in the conference. There are concerns about replacing some skill position players -- especially the indispensable Gabe Marks – but the favorable schedule alleviates that a bit. Mike Leach has turned Wazzu into a consistent winner now and if the Cougars can avoid the mind-numbing mistakes of years past like special teams gaffes and losing to FCS teams, this can be a consistent top 25 squad.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Washington State brought on Mike Leach before the 2012 season in hopes of returning to contention in the Pac-12. At that time, the Cougars were last in the mix in 2003 – and had not been to a bowl game over the same stretch.
Washington State now has made bowl appearances in three of the last four seasons. More importantly, the Cougars have been squarely in contention in the Pac-12 North, hosting pivotal games for first place late in the season (Stanford in 2015, Washington in the ‘16 finale).
Both times, however, Washington State's bid for the division was thwarted. A brutal final month of the 2017 regular season could continue that trend, with Stanford and back-to-back road games completing the Cougars' regular season. A three-game skid to close out is a very real possibility.
Be that as it may, this is the best lineup Leach has had in his time on the Palouse. Luke Falk headlines a group of upperclassmen capable of pushing rival Washington for top billing in the North – and also capable of ending Washington State's recent string of confounding season-opening losses. The Cougars WILL get over the Big Sky hump and beat Montana State. Fending off Boise State and Oregon State at home in the subsequent two weeks sets the tone for Washington State's season.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
Washington State is a popular dark horse pick in the Pac-12 North division and it’s easy to see why. Luke Falk headlines an offense that could be even more explosive this fall thanks to a talented receiver corps, underrated running game and rock-solid offensive line. The defense will be the key, however, especially in the secondary. Getting to another bowl game should not be a problem, but how high the Cougars rise in the rankings and conference standings will come down to home dates with Boise State, USC, Colorado and Stanford, and the back-to-back road games at Utah and Washington to close things out. Mike Leach’s team will have to take care of business at home if Wazzu wants to remain in the hunt entering November.