PULLMAN – Imagine that an anxious Washington State football fan had asked a rational person how many wins the Cougars could achieve in 2016.
Well, maybe not a totally reasonable person, since someone like that likely would have responded, “What? Why are you asking me to predict the actions of 18- through 23-year-olds, you crazy person.”
But at least suppose the fan had asked someone lucid enough to make an educated guess about WSU’s chances in the 2016 campaign. Such a person likely would have pointed to WSU’s opening stretch of Pac-12 play as the crux that would determine whether the Cougars could be good or great in Mike Leach’s fifth season.
Oregon and Stanford, the only two teams to win Pac-12 championships over the last seven seasons, up first. Then a homecoming visit from always talented UCLA, followed by a trip to Tempe, where WSU has not won since 2001, to take on Arizona State.
A realist would probably look at that schedule and say that if the Cougars emerged with a 2-2 record in that gantlet then they would set themselves up well for a successful season.
Well, the Cougars (3-2, 2-0 Pac-12) are halfway through Death Valley, and suddenly a .500 record is the absolute worst-case scenario. WSU beat Stanford and Oregon by a combined score of 93-49. The Cougars are favored over the Bruins, who might be without their starting quarterback, and there is every reason to think they are capable of beating ASU on the road.
The Cougars are not yet halfway through the regular season and a lot can still happen. But WSU is in control of its own destiny with regard to a conference championship and the Washington schools are the only ones in the Pac-12, save maybe Colorado, that do not appear to be suffering down years if not outright imploding.
It is good to be good, it is grand to also have mediocre opponents.
Of course, our factual friend would doubtlessly assume that a WSU team that began its toughest stretch by knocking out the two most prominent opponents in decisive fashion would probably be undefeated, and looking at double-digit wins this year.
Had you told this selfsame rationalist that WSU would lose its first two games, neither loss coming to a Power Five team or outside the Pacific Northwest, and he or she would have told you after a few strokes of the chin that 2016 was going to be a real stinker.
But all that has happened, and how can both be true? Well, Leach and the Cougars righted the ship vastly after the Boise State loss and have improved so much that one is left to wonder how many touchdowns the Week 7 Cougars would be favored by over their Week 2 counterparts.
“I think everybody is just fully buying into the system and doing their job,” said receiver Tavares Martin. “Last year, you might have had one or two guys not doing their job, which cost us maybe some wins.”
The thing that was lacking the first two weeks was toughness, according to Leach. The defense in particular looked flat against Eastern Washington, seeming to have lost whatever spark it developed at the end of the 2015 season.
There were few better examples of toughness that what the WSU defense exhibited at the start of the Stanford game, holding the Cardinal to consecutive three-and-outs and giving up just 11 yards of field position after an interception.
That stand allowed the WSU offense to find its footing and score first.
“Our offense, more than most years, we feed off the defense a lot,” receiver Gabe Marks said. “They’ve got a lot of energy over there and we usually just try to focus on just doing our job on offense. But seeing them get stops and everything like that gives us the confidence to want to go out there and make plays for them.”
As it stands right now, no team is improving at a faster clip than the Cougars and it feels almost inevitable that for the second straight season WSU will begin the year with one of the Pac-12’s worst losses yet spend the season as the one team nobody wants to play.
Which just goes to show, preseason prognostication is the sport of fools, not rational people.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.