Mike Leach's Cougars have a tough Pac-12 road slate to navigate
Washington State is replacing a star quarterback for the second straight season. Optimism still runs high in Pullman. While it won't be a simple task to duplicate the success of 2018 that included a school-record 11 wins, the Cougars have graduated from rebuilding to reloading under Mike Leach.
Seven starters return on offense to help new quarterback Gage Gubrud have a smoother transition. An experienced secondary will make Washington State's defense a force to be reckoned with once again. It isn't safe to bet against Leach, who has won 37 games over his last four seasons.
A tough road schedule will challenge the Cougars in their efforts to finally claim a Pac-12 North title. Road trips to Oregon, Utah, and Washington highlight the fearsome slate.
12. Sept. 7 vs. Northern Colorado
Big Sky Conference teams have risen to the occasion against Washington State in recent years. The Cougars aren't likely to be on upset alert against the Bears. This is one of the biggest mismatches on paper among the non-conference games this season.
Northern Colorado scratched out a 2-9 record a year ago and has put together just two winning seasons over the past decade. The talent gap between the two teams is a wide chasm and Washington State will likely be raining touchdown passes over that chasm.
11. Aug. 31 vs. New Mexico State
Life as an independent didn't go so well for the Aggies in year one. After making a bowl game in 2017, the Aggies sunk to 3-9 last season.
Defense is a problem area for New Mexico State which doesn't bode well going against the Air Raid. Even with breaking in a new quarterback, Washington State shouldn't have any trouble moving the chains and piling up points in the season opener. New Mexico State hasn't beaten a current Pac-12 team since upsetting Arizona State in 1999.
10. Nov. 23 vs. Oregon State
Lighting up the scoreboard won't be a problem for the Cougars if the Beavers don't take a major step forward on defense. Oregon State fielded the worst defense by a mile in the Pac-12 a year ago, ranking dead last in several defensive categories. It offset an improved offense powered by running back Jermar Jefferson, who among the top 10 rushers nationally with 1,380 yards on 239 carries.
Oregon State's defensive struggles have been especially pronounced against Washington State. The Cougars have won five straight in the series and have topped 50 points on three occasions during that winning streak.
9. Oct. 19 vs. Colorado
Can the Buffaloes re-emerge from the Pac-12 South cellar under first-year head coach Mel Tucker? Colorado wants to carve out a rugged defensive identity with Tucker at the helm. If the Buffaloes are successful, it should take some pressure off an offense that's been mediocre at times in recent years.
The Buffaloes have struggled to finish drives against Washington State, totaling just 48 points over the last four games in the series. Colorado has a capable quarterback in Steven Montez, who threw for 2,849 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. The Buffaloes are breaking in a new running back and several new receivers. If Laviska Shenault Jr. can stay healthy, he could easily churn out another 1,000-yard receiving season and give the offense some teeth.
8. Sept. 21 vs. UCLA
Can UCLA make significant strides under Chip Kelly in year two? The Bruins endured their worst start since 1943 during his debut season and finished just 3-9 overall. UCLA ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in both total defense and scoring defense. Washington State hasn't lost to the Bruins since 2012, but the two teams have met just twice over the past six seasons.
The Bruins have enough potential on offense with sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and senior running back Joshua Kelley to bounce back in 2019. With Kelley, UCLA had a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2015. Thompson-Robinson was limited by a shoulder injury, but made seven starts and gained valuable experience in Kelly's offense.
7. Sept. 13 at Houston
This battle of Cougars could provide some fun offensive fireworks. Dana Holgorsen had little trouble putting together explosive offenses at West Virginia. He has the right ingredients in place to do the same at Houston.
It starts with D'Eriq King. The senior quarterback was responsible for 50 touchdowns last season. He threw for 2,982 yards and rushed for 674 yards. A knee injury knocked him out of the final two games. King's top target, Marquez Stevenson is back after totaling 1,019 yards on 75 catches in 2018. Both players will shine in Holgorsen's potent scheme.
6. Oct. 12 at Arizona State
The Sun Devils are a tough team to forecast entering the season. Arizona State is undergoing a bit of a rebuild on offense after losing starting quarterback Manny Wilkins and top receiver N'Keal Harry. Still, the Sun Devils brought in a ton of promising freshman and Eno Benjamin remains in the backfield.
Benjamin is coming off a season where he ran for a school-record 1,654 yards. He became the first Arizona State player to carry the ball 300 times in a single season. Defensively, the Sun Devils could take a step forward. Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson, the team's top two tacklers, both look to build on breakout freshman campaigns.
5. Nov. 9 at California
Nothing comes easy against the Bears since Justin Wilcox took over the program. Wilcox knows how to scheme against the Air Raid. California has also dealt the Cougars an upset loss each of the last two times the two teams have played in Berkley.
Can Washington State finish off enough drives to avoid a similar fate? There's no easy answer to that question. The Bears have given up just 11.0 points per game to the Cougars over the last two seasons. That defense isn't going to take a dip this season. Evan Weaver had 159 tackles last season, the most by a returning FBS player. California also returns all four starters in the secondary. This quartet accounted for 13 interceptions — led by Jaylinn Hawkins' six picks.
4. Nov. 16 vs. Stanford
It's true that Washington State has won three straight in the series with the Cardinal. Those wins haven't been particularly easy. Stanford is always a physical team that makes opponents feel it for many days after the clock hits zero.
Stopping Stanford's offense could be a concern with K.J. Costello back at the helm. Costello is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation this season after throwing for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns a year ago. If Cameron Scarlett, Trevor Speights, or Dorian Maddox can take a leap forward and become a productive feature back, the Cardinal will be a factor in the Pac-12 North once again.
3. Sept. 28 at Utah
The Cougars have had the Utes' number in recent seasons. Washington State earned a fourth straight victory in the series last year, edging Utah 28-24. Getting a fifth straight win could be dicey. Utah returns all of its key playmakers on offense — led by Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley.
Both seniors tore it up before missing the final five games with injuries. Moss ran for 1,096 yards while Huntley threw for 1,788 yards. The Utes have one of the best defensive lines in the nation and return every starter up front from a year ago. Utah will be favorites to repeat as Pac-12 South champions and it sets up for a daunting road trip to Salt Lake City.
2. Oct. 26 at Oregon
With Justin Herbert bypassing the NFL draft, the Ducks are widely seen as the most likely challenger to defending Pac-12 champion Washington among the Pac-12 North teams. Herbert puts the Oregon offense on an unstoppable level when he's healthy and in peak form. Herbert threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns a year ago.
Then again, Oregon needs to prove it can get past Washington State first before dreaming about the Rose Bowl. The Cougars have won four straight games in the series. For Oregon, shoring up a pass defense that gave up 241.6 yards per game a year ago is the biggest key.
1. Nov. 29 at Washington
Does the fact that the Huskies are replacing 13 starters — including nine on defense — mean the door has finally opened for the Cougars in the Apple Cup? Washington State certainly wants that scenario to unfold. How well Washington does could hinge on how quickly an inexperienced defense can mesh together.
The Huskies fielded one of the nation's best defenses a year ago and, once again, shut down the Cougars in the Apple Cup. During Washington State's six-game losing streak to Washington, the Cougars have averaged 14.3 points per contest. They haven't scored 20 or more points in a game against the Huskies since 2012.
— 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.