September 1, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: Cougars’ surprise party would include bowl bid

By Correspondent

This is probably hair-splitting of Miami-cheating proportions, but it’s time for federal regulation of the surprise team industry.

“Biff, who’s your surprise team in college football this year?”

“Well, Griff, I think Cal State-Kardashian could be a surprise team.”

Well, yes, they could be a surprise … if you hadn’t just mentioned them. Just as the party we plan on throwing you for your birthday could be surprise, if I hadn’t just told you about it.

Now, yes, degrees of surprise can be expressed and acknowledged as something is in the process of unfolding. For example, should the Washington State Cougars find themselves, oh, 4-1 when Stanford brings Heisman front-runner – a hair-split for another time – Andrew Luck to town on Oct. 15, well, then they could properly be the “surprising Cougars.” Likewise, if they’re lining up a charter plane to ferry them to a bowl game in December, knock yourselves out.

Or pick yourselves off the floor. Whatever.

Those are relevant examples because they seem to be the benchmarks occupying Wazzu’s eager fan base in the run-up to Saturday’s season opener against the Idaho State Bopbags in Pullman. And having endured three seasons of relative hell in the way of competitive or compelling football, they should not be begrudged a buzz even that modest.

Even if it’s not particularly realistic.

Obviously, the Cougars will put a better confection on the field this fall. We saw the hints of it in 2011 – games growing closer, an actual victory over an OK opponent, the blossoming of a few special talents. We have heard more encouraging news from camp – no devastating injuries, a key performer with his head on straight, an academic casualty averted, depth taking shape. Some important tweaking has been done to the coaching staff that now gives it the gravitas of experience and accomplishment.

So why can’t the Cougars go 6-6 and at least attain bowl eligibility, if not guarantee themselves a December reward?

Well, of course, they can. It’s just that history argues against it.

Now, history is never an absolute. Wazzu once went 66 seasons without going to a Rose Bowl. That’s history. The 67th year, the Cougars went. That’s giving history a neener-neener.

Frankly, the Cougs may have to do something similarly earth-shaking just to make the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.

Just to make it into bowl consideration, WSU must win more games this season than it’s won in the past three combined, and win four more than it managed to eke out in 2010.

That’s doable. Pacific-12 history, encompassing all the previous incarnations of Pacdom, reveals that teams have made a jump of four victories or more a whopping 57 times. The Cougs have done it eight themselves – half of those to go from college football’s discard pile into the bowl rotation.

But in each of those four nowhere-to-bowl-wear years, the Cougars started from a base camp of four wins the season before, from where the peak of Everest could actually be seen.

Never have they done it from square one, or two.

The distinction is not a small one. In conference history, teams that have gone from one or two victories to a bowl the following season number exactly … one. Cal, 1-9 in 1957, made it to the next Rose Bowl. That’s 54 years ago.

There are some asterisks to that record. The Bears also jumped from 1-10 to 7-5 in 2002, but the Pac-10’s bowl dance card was filled. There weren’t as many opportunities in 1979, when Oregon went from 2-9 to 6-5. UCLA’s bounce from 2-7-1 to 8-3 in 1972 was before the league even allowed multiple bowl teams.

But that Cal surge in 2002 is the only time in the last 25 years of Pac-whatever football that a one- or two-win program has improved to bowl eligibility.

And that’s because it’s hard. There is a foundation to be laid. Paul Wulff’s WSU program has been painstakingly trying to accumulate enough weapons to merely compete; it hasn’t yet begun to learn how to win, one taste at Oregon State last year notwithstanding.

The accommodating early schedule that’s supposed to grease the way? True, not one of those first five opponents makes the knees knock – but then, neither do the Cougs. There’s an entire month when they don’t play at home. After that, it gets a little murderous, especially since a Pullman date has been sold to the devil, er, moved to Seattle.

The absolutism that seems to attend all opinions about Wulff’s future – bowl game or bust – will probably not let up, and maybe it shouldn’t. But his task is far more daunting than is being acknowledged.

But, hey, you never know.

The Cougs could be a surprise team. Just thought I’d mention it.

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