Only a fool would try to predict an unpredictable college football season. Good thing I'm here.
As the offseason ends, I'm ready to make a few bold claims about what I expect to happen in the coming months. If I get a couple correct, I'll be happy. If I nail them all, you can join me in insisting that the Spokesman-Review send me to Hawaii to cover the men's basketball team in the Diamond Head Classic. And if I don't get any of these predictions right, I'll throw up a video on the blog after the Apple Cup of myself jumping into what will doubtlessly be a very cold river.
- The Cougars will upset a team ranked in the AP Top-25.
Washington State has upset just one ranked team since 2006 – USC in 2013 – but I expect them to knock off at least one this year. While the Cougars defense is still a ways from being good, per se, it should improve enough that opposing teams cannot simply match whatever the offense is able to produce.
And the WSU offense should produce plenty of points, enough to put pressure on better teams and win if the opposing quarterback has a bad day. The Cougars will have plenty of opportunities to make this prediction come true; I wouldn't be surprised if Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA are ranked by the Associated Press before their respective games against the Cougars.
- The WSU offensive line will give up fewer than 30 sacks.
The quarterback guardians had a rough time adjusting to their first year of wide splits and prolific passing, giving up 57 sacks in 2012. They made a marked improvement the next year, allowing opposing defenders to take down the QB just 32 times in 2013 and were again solid last season, giving up 36 sacks.
I expect the offensive line, which returns everybody, literally everybody, from last season to have a great year. Couple an improved offensive line with the pocket feel and mobility we've seen from Luke Falk* and I think WSU will allow less than 30 sacks in 2015.
*For the purposes of this blog post I'm assuming Falk will win the job. But if Peyton Bender wins the starting quarterback job the point still holds, although he's not quite as mobile as Falk.
- Carlos Freeman and Dylan Hanser and will find playing time.
As a true junior with 10 starts under his belt, Riley Sorenson would appear to be someone who could feel pretty secure in his starting position. But WSU's center is going to have to fight hard to fend off Carlos Freeman, one of the team's nastiest trench fighters. A former wrestler, Freeman leaped past Sam Flor—a two game starter himself—in the spring and appears close on the heels of Sorenson. Freeman, a sophomore, seems versatile enough to slide over to guard if Sorenson is able to hold onto the position. Whether he beats someone out, switches spots on the line or plays due to injury, I expect we'll see Carlos Freeman on the field this year.
Similarly, Dylan Hanser has some established players ahead of him at the Rush linebacker position in Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan. Those two seniors are bigger, stronger and a lot more experienced than the 6-foot-4, 214-pound sophomore. But while Hanser still looks like a stick, he's got maybe the quickest first step on the team and he covers ground quicker than any of WSU's other pass rushers.
- The WSU offense will rush for 1,000 yards, but no player will have more than 500 yards rushing.
The running back trio of Gerard Wicks, Keith Harrington and Jamal Morrow should provide the most productive rushing attack the Cougars have seen since Mike Leach arrived in Pullman, and Falk should be enough of a running threat to finish with a positive rushing total or come close to it.
In fact, I would not be surprised if each of those three running backs manages a 100-yard game at some point this season. But, I doubt any of them will rush for more than 500 yards because they'll be sharing carries.
- The Cougars are one year away from becoming a bowl team.
I keep scouring the WSU schedule in search of six wins and I just don't see them. Too many potentially pivotal games (Rutgers, California, the Apple Cup) are on the road and the Cougars don't have enough easy ones. WSU should beat Portland State, Wyoming, Oregon State and Colorado, but winning two more after that is going to very, very challenging. And while I expect the Cougars to upset at least one good team, it's just as likely that a team such as Colorado, which will have a very dangerous QB-WR combo in Sefo Liufau and Nelson Spruce, is able to steal one from the Cougars.
It's tempting to think the Cougars should beat Rutgers, given how close they were last year and some losses suffered by the Scarlet Knights. But there is plenty of data that shows West Coast teams are at a significant disadvantage when they travel east. New quarterback Hayden Rettig appears to be a high-caliber player and the Scarlet Knights have a 68-percent winning percentage at home over the last three seasons. Ultimately, I think there's too much working against the Cougars in this matchup of fairly even teams.
California is another team it's easy to envision the Cougars getting payback against after giving away the game in 2014. But in 2015 the Golden Bears get to play at home, and junior quarterback Jared Goff should continue to improve as he begins the second half of what has already been a very impressive career. Wide receivers Kenny Lawler and Bryce Treggs are still around, as is running back Daniel Lasco. The defense will still be a mess but, like WSU, Cal has added junior college players to shore up the unit and USC transfer DeVante Wilson should make a difference on the line.
Similarly, Washington is widely expected to have one of its worst seasons in some time with no confidence-inspiring quarterback and few capable veterans remaining from last year's underperforming team. But, the Cougars have won in Seattle just twice since 1997 and I don't think they'll have enough of a talent advantage to make themselves favorites in this one.
The good news is that the team appears poised for a real breakthrough season in 2016, the type of year where you don't have to sweat until the final game to find out if WSU qualified for a bowl or not. The Cougars should return almost every skill player on offense and the linemen that graduate will be replaced by upperclassmen with experience in WSU's system. The defense should be rounding into form as well and it would be no surprise to see the Cougars win seven, eight, or even more games with the structure in place to do it again in 2017.
But, I suspect Cougar fans will have to wait another season for those heady days. Because WSU's nascent defense is not yet ready to get the Cougars through a rough schedule and into the postseason.