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Picking the Cougars: Projections for all 12 of Washington State’s 2018 football games

Washington State wide receiver Kyle Sweet makes a catch in the end zone during a practice in Pullman in mid-August. Sweet and the Cougars face a tough climb to repeat last season’s nine-win season. (Ted Warren / AP)

No shocker here: Washington State football players didn’t take kindly to the preseason Pac-12 predictions unveiled last month.

The Cougars, nine-game winners in 2017 who were in Pac-12 North title contention until the Apple Cup, were selected to finish fifth by league media members who reckon WSU won’t be able to replicate last year without key cast members like Luke Falk, Hercules Mata’afa and Alex Grinch.

“We’re playing against the odds,” inside receiver Kyle Sweet said. “And I think a lot of us are coming together because we’re not picked to do very much this year. So a lot of us are using that as motivation and have a chip on our shoulder to get better.”

If the Cougars meet their own expectations, it’ll be a fourth bowl game in four years. If the prognosticators have it right, WSU’s postseason streak will end at three.

What’s in store for the 2018 Cougars? We take a look at how each of the 12 regular-season games could pan out, with score predictions and commentary.

Washington State at Wyoming (Sept. 1) – With franchise quarterbacks Luke Falk and Josh Allen, this game could have been an offensive marathon last season. Home-field advantage and a game the week before work in the Cowboys’ favor, but Falk’s successor is more experienced than Allen’s and the Cougars are better at the skill positions. That should be enough for 1-0 – but just barely. Cougars 28, Cowboys 27 (1-0).

San Jose State at Washington State (Sept. 8) – Memories of Tyler Hilinski will be strewn throughout Martin Stadium during the home opener, which should provide an extra charge before late-night kickoff in Pullman. Oh, and the Spartans grade out as the worst team on WSU’s schedule. A Cammon Cooper sighting by the fourth quarter? Cougars 49, Spartans 10 (2-0).

Eastern Washington at Washington State (Sept. 15) – Last year’s opener against Montana State showed us the Cougars may have finally conquered their FCS demons. But this will be the litmus test. EWU’s run game could pose a bigger threat to the Cougars than the passing game – and the Cougars are better suited to stop the pass than the run – but the Eagles also conceded 33.3 points per game and may have a tough time outscoring the hosts. Cougars 45, Eagles 38 (3-0).

Washington State at USC (Sept. 21) – Even if the Trojans don’t have a solution at QB by the fourth week of the season, they still have running back Stephen Carr and five All-Pac-12 returnees on defense. Talent wasn’t enough to get the Trojans past the Cougars last year. It should be this year. Trojans 31, Cougars 17 (3-1, 0-1).

Utah at Washington State (Sept. 29) – Second-year starting quarterback Tyler Huntley will grab most of the media attention this season if he can replicate or improve his numbers from last season. But the Cougars might be more concerned with the Utes’ defensive front – which is big and Polynesian-flavored usual – not to mention their talented defensive secondary. Utes 28, Cougars 21 (3-2, 0-2).

Washington State at Oregon State (Oct. 6) – The Beavers are rebuilding and rebranding their program in year No. 1 under Jonathan Smith. That’s no six-week job and even with Ryan Nall in the backfield last year, OSU had trouble keeping up with the Air Raid offense, scoring just 23 points – 14 of which came from the powerful senior tailback. So, no Nall, no chance – at least not this early on in the Smith era. Cougars 38, Beavers 21 (4-2, 1-2).

Oregon at Washington State (Oct. 20) – Tracy Claeys’ defense will see at least three Heisman candidates the second half of the season and Oregon’s junior quarterback, Justin Herbert, will be the first. I suspect it’ll be a sweet homecoming for Jim Mastro and Joe Salave’a, and the Ducks will snatch a win from the Cougars for the first time since Marcus Mariota was under center. Ducks 37, Cougars 34 (4-3, 1-3).

Washington State at Stanford (Oct. 27) – As different as Oregon and Stanford are cosmetically and strategically, both are in a similar position this year as preseason Top 25 teams powered by Heisman candidates looking to re-establish status in the Pac-12 North. WSU’s defensive line built a wall strong enough to withstand Bryce Love last season. Hard to imagine it happens twice in two years. Cardinal 34, Cougars 17 (4-4, 1-4).

Cal at Washington State (Nov. 3) – With eight games played and four left, the Cougars and Golden Bears may both be in the realm of bowl eligibility at this point – and the game at Martin Stadium will be a biggie given the remaining schedule for both teams. WSU finishes at Colorado, home vs. Arizona and home vs. Washington. Cal has USC on the road, Stanford home and Colorado home. Alex Grinch never could stop Beau Baldwin’s offense – perhaps Claeys can? Cougars 28, Golden Bears 20 (5-4, 2-4).

Washington State at Colorado (Nov. 17) – It won’t be their last chance to attain bowl eligibility, but the road contest in Boulder will be the Cougars’ best. Colorado was better than the 28-0 shutout it suffered in Pullman last season, and then-sophomore quarterback Steven Montez was better than his passing numbers (4 of 13) indicated. But the Buffaloes have a big hole in the backfield without Phillip Lindsay and their defense crumbled in Pac-12 play last season, conceding more than 34 ppg. The Cougars steal a big win in the Centennial State to reach the magic number. Cougars 33, Buffaloes 27 (6-4, 3-4).

Arizona at Washington State (Nov. 17) – One-time WSU graduate assistant Kevin Sumlin returns to the Palouse with explosive junior quarterback Khalil Tate, who accelerated through the Cougars’ “Speed D” last year with 146 rushing yards – not to mention the 275 he accumulated in the air. If his tank isn’t empty by the middle of November, Tate will dazzle again and ensure the Cougars finish Pac-12 play with a losing record. Wildcats 49, Cougars 28 (6-5, 3-5).

Washington at Washington State (Nov. 23) – Anyone really care for the commentary here? Huskies 45, Cougars 3 (6-6, 3-6).