Can Washington State remain an offensive juggernaut now that Mike Leach has departed to the SEC? That's the biggest question facing the Cougars heading into their first season under new head coach Nick Rolovich.
Washington State has a wealth of talent and experience at wide receiver, which will work well for Rolovich who liked to employ the run-and-shoot at Hawaii. But the Cougars also have no quarterbacks who have taken a snap in a college football game, so the learning curve could be steep.
The schedule only helps a little bit with a transitional season. Pac-12 heavyweights like Oregon, Washington, and Utah all visit Pullman and the toughest road games are likely Stanford and Oregon State. Seeing the Pac-12 shift to a conference-only schedule this fall because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leaves little room for error in qualifying for a bowl game.
Here is a breakdown of Washington State's 2020 schedule, as currently constructed, ranked from easiest to the toughest game:
9. Nov. 7 at Colorado
The Cougars aren't the only Pac-12 team going through a major transition this season. For the second straight year, the Buffaloes are breaking in a new head coach. Former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell steps in for Mel Tucker, who left to take over at Michigan State. Dorrell led UCLA to five bowl games in five years from 2003-07, but has his work cut out for him in Boulder. Colorado must replace a three-year starter at quarterback and its top two receivers from an offense that ranked in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in several key categories a year ago.
8. Nov. 14 at UCLA
Last season, the Bruins pulled off one of the most improbable fourth-quarter comebacks ever to upend the Cougars 67-63 and nearly derail Leach's final season. Dorian Thompson-Robinson was brilliant in the game, throwing for 507 yards and five touchdowns. UCLA's fortunes seem to rise and fall with their junior quarterback. When Thompson-Robinson is playing to his full potential, the Bruins are tough to stop. You can bet Washington State will have this late-season rematch circled on the calendar.
7. Oct. 17 at Stanford
The Cardinal experienced a rare down season a year ago, suffering their first losing season since 2008. Sixteen starters return on offense and defense, so improvement is likely. If Stanford can reestablish the power-run game that served the team so well before last season, becoming a Pac-12 North contender again will be much easier. Austin Jones averaged 5.0 yards per carry as the backup running back last season. Davis Mills will also need to take a step forward at quarterback to elevate the offense from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 last season.
6. Sept. 26 at Oregon State
Last season's clash with the Beavers produced an instant classic photo finish in a deciding game for both teams bowl hopes. The Cougars eked out a 54-53 victory. Oregon State brings back only three offensive starters for the rematch. Replacing quarterback Jake Luton and top receiver Isaiah Hodgins won't be easy. If Jermar Jefferson is fully healthy, that could make the offense feel fewer growing pains. Jefferson rushed for 685 yards last season while dealing with injuries after churning out 1,380 as a freshman.
5. Sept. 26 vs. California
How bad was the Cougar defense last season? Offensively challenged California tallied a regular-season-high 33 points against Washington State to snap a four-game losing streak. The Bears ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) and total offense (328.5 ypg) a year ago. With 10 returning starters, including quarterback Chase Garbers and the entire offensive line, Cal is positioned to finally take a step forward on offense. That could make the Bears tough defense feel even more stifling in 2020.
4. Oct. 31 vs. Arizona State
Jayden Daniels will be counted on to build on a strong freshman season even as he adjusts to life without his top two playmakers. Top rusher Eno Benjamin and top receiver Brandon Aiyuk will be tough to replace. If the Sun Devils can do it, their offense should be tough to contain. Daniels fared well in his debut season, throwing for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns with only two interceptions. His 17-yard scramble in the final minute lifted Arizona State to a 38-34 win over the Cougars last season.
3. Oct. 10 vs. Utah
The Utes face some turnover at several key positions in their quest for a third-straight Pac-12 South title. Utah must replace quarterback Tyler Huntley, running back Zack Moss, and break in nine new starters on defense. Still, the Utes are strong and experienced along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and will be as tough as ever to deal with over 60 minutes. Utah shut down the Cougars in a 38-13 rout a year ago, snapping a four-game losing streak in the series.
2. Nov. 27 vs. Washington
New head coach Jimmy Lake faces a major rebuild on offense in his first season guiding the Huskies. Washington will break in a new quarterback to replace Jacob Eason and also has to replace top rusher Salvon Ahmed and top receivers Aaron Fuller and Hunter Bryant. The good news for the Huskies is that seven starters – led by All-Pac-12 first-teamer Elijah Molden – return on a defense that ranked third in points (19.4 ppg) and yards (348.6 ypg) allowed per game in the Pac-12 a year ago. The Cougars still face an uphill climb to take down their Apple Cup rivals for the first time since 2012.
1. Nov. 21 vs. Oregon
Replacing four-year starter Justin Herbert at quarterback sounds like a daunting task until you consider the fact that the Ducks return their top three rushers and top two receivers from last season. CJ Verdell churned out 1,220 yards on the ground while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Johnny Johnson III tallied 836 receiving yards while averaging 14.7 yards per catch. The defense returns eight starters – including the entire secondary. Oregon is a clear favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champions and is poised to give the Cougars fits for four quarters.
— 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.
(Top photo by Robert Hubner, courtesy of wsucougars.com)