The 2018 season may not end with a major New Year’s Six bowl for Washington State, but it’ll still end at a place many fans and prognosticators wouldn’t have anticipated when the Cougars opened fall camp in early August.
Projected by some to win three or four games when this season dawned, WSU set a high bar for itself by reeling off seven straight victories at one point, cracking the top eight of the College Football Playoff rankings and, once again, putting itself in a position to play for a Pac-12 championship.
The Cougars fell short of a few of the goals they targeted in the midst of a stellar season, but the consolation prize will still be a high-profile postseason game that’s representative of what they accomplished against the odds, in addition to the sustained success of the WSU program under seventh-year coach Mike Leach.
WSU (10-2, 7-2) will appear in its fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history on Dec. 28 when the Cougars take on Big 12 opponent Iowa State (8-4, 6-3) in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. The game will kick off at 6 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.
“We are excited to be a part of the Alamo Bowl against a great opponent in Iowa State,” Leach said in a press release. “The Alamo Bowl does a fantastic job with tremendous people hosting and running the events. We look forward to a great week.”
The Cougars finished the season No. 13 in the last edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, one place lower than they would’ve needed to be to lock in a NY6 bowl. The Cyclones are ranked No. 24 in the CFP and finished their regular season Saturday, scraping out a 27-24 win over FCS opponent Drake.
WSU fans, and a few players, voiced frustration over social media that the Cougars weren’t given an opportunity to play in a major bowl game, criticizing the CFP committee for keeping a trio of three-loss teams – Florida, LSU and Penn State – ahead of 10-win WSU in the final rankings.
That irked WSU’s athletic administration, too.
“I’ll be clear, we’re very disappointed with where we ended up being ranked,” athletic director Pat Chun said Sunday in a conference call. “We believe as a 10-win team in a Power Five league, the manner in which our two losses came, statistically how we match up against other teams kind of in the same cluster as us, we believe our resume ranked perhaps higher than where the committee thought it was. But they’re empowered to make those decisions, we’ll respect those decisions, we are not happy with where we’re ranked but we’re ecstatic to be in the Alamo Bowl.”
The Cougars won’t have much time to stew about the decision as they try to close the 2018 season on a historic note.
“We have an opportunity to get our 11th win,” Chun noted.
The Cougars have never won more than 10 games in a season.
“I think it’s pretty fun for us to be able to even take our football coach, who’s had a lot of success in that state as well, back to a state he built a great reputation in terms of the program he ran,” Chun said. “When you add it all up, we’re pleased to be there and we’re honored to represent our league, and we’ve got a tough opponent in Iowa State.”
WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew posted the following message from his Twitter account Sunday: “Anybody. Anytime. Anywhere. Don’t matter. We’re goin for number 11! #GoCougs.”
Many projected that San Antonio would be the destination for WSU and Leach, who’ll be returning to the state where he spent a decade as the coach at Texas Tech, from 2000-2009.
However, most anticipated that the Alamo Bowl would pit the Cougars against No. 16 West Virginia and one of Leach’s old pupils, Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen. In a surprise move, the Alamo Bowl grabbed another Big 12 team with an identical conference record but a lower national ranking.
There may have been more zest and appeal in a game between the Cougars and Mountaineers, who each have a Heisman Trophy candidate at the quarterback position, but ISU, under the direction of third-year coach Matt Campbell, should still pose an interesting challenge for WSU.
“We play an exciting brand of football, obviously being in a temperature-controlled environment (the Alamodome) is very good for the Air Raid offense,” Chun said. “And Iowa State is a well-coached team. … This is definitely one of the better opportunities out there and the reality is you have two fan bases that are very similar.”
Just two teams in the Big 12 are giving up fewer than 400 yards per game this season and only two are ranked in the top 50 in total defense. TCU is one of those and ISU is the other, allowing 351 yards per game. The Cyclones also seem better equipped than most of their Big 12 peers to handle an offense such as WSU’s Air Raid. They give up just 228 passing yards per game, which is second-lowest in the conference.
ISU had its season opener against South Dakota State canceled and the Cyclones lost three of their first four games, to Iowa, Oklahoma and TCU, before snagging a Big 12 win against Oklahoma State and closing the season with seven victories in their final eight games.
The only other loss for ISU came to a Texas team ranked No. 15 at the time, but the Cyclones did manage to bag a few ranked wins of their own, beating then No. 25 Oklahoma State 48-42 and No. 6 West Virginia 30-14 the following week.
In defeating the Mountaineers, ISU held quarterback Will Grier to 11-of-15 passing and just 100 yards through the air in the worst game of the season for the Heisman Trophy candidate. WVU finished the game with 152 yards of total offense – its lowest total of the season.
“I think there’s a really good buzz around our facility today and a lot of excitement,” Campbell told reporters Sunday in Ames, Iowa.
Led by Minshew, the national leader in passing yards per game, the Cougars have their first 10-win season in 16 years. The Alamo Bowl will be their fourth consecutive postseason appearance after trips to the Sun Bowl (2015) and Holiday Bowl (2016, 2017). WSU, which also played in the New Mexico Bowl in 2013, is 1-3 in bowl games under Leach.
The Cougars have played in the Alamo Bowl one other time, edging Baylor 10-3 in 1994. This will mark the first meeting between WSU and ISU.