PULLMAN – Anymore, the Cougars aren’t too challenging of a bunch to predict. Or at least that’s what recent history tell us.
Washington State has won at least eight games in each of the past four years under Mike Leach, and nine or more on three occasions. During that stretch, the Cougars have left a telling trail of hints as to who they match up well against and who they don’t.
Consider a few of their streaks: five consecutive wins over Oregon State, four straight wins over both Utah and Oregon, and three against Stanford. Not to mention their one big slump: six losses in a row against cross-state rival Washington. The Cougars have won three of the last six against Cal, but three of those games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Using that knowledge, and everything we’ve gathered about this WSU team, we go game-by-game and take a stab at predicting the 2019 Cougars.
New Mexico State at Washington State
It may not be the Aggies’ most lopsided nonconference game – NMSU visits Alabama in week two and travels to Ole Miss later in the year – but the season opener pits a WSU team that ranked No. 27 in total offense last season against a NMSU team that finished No. 120 in total defense. The Aggies allowed at least 40 points in eight games last season and gave up 60 twice. It should be a smooth day for Anthony Gordon, making the first start of his career. Cougars 56, Aggies 17. (1-0).
Northern Colorado at WSU
After consecutive losses to FCS schools in 2015 and ’16, it seems the Cougars have erased their Big Sky bugaboos, blowing out Montana State and Eastern Washington the last two years by a combined score of 90-24. It would be ridiculous to say WSU could win the next Pac-12-vs.-Big Sky test by that exact score, but the Bears of Northern Colorado – picked to finish last in their league – may be the least threatening FCS foe the Cougars have seen under Leach. Cougars 48, Bears 3. (2-0).
WSU at Houston
Games No. 1 and 2 should be a breeze for Tracy Claeys and his defense, but the Cougars will need to be on their toes against Houston, Leach disciple Dana Holgorsen and dual threat quarterback D’Eriq King, who passed for 36 touchdowns last season and ran in 14 more. It isn’t unreasonable to think he’ll be the most dynamic player at the position the Cougs will see all year. Still, Houston could hang 30 or 40 points on WSU and still lose in a two-score game. The defense has lots to correct after conceding 496 yards per game in 2018 – fourth most in the FBS – and it’s unlikely that happens by week three. Cougars (of WSU) 45, Cougars (of Houston) 31. (3-0).
UCLA at WSU
Have there been two coaches more instrumental to the growth of offense over the past two decades than Leach and Chip Kelly? While Kelly has a top Pac-12 running back at his disposal, Joshua Kelley, the quarterback position is still, well, under construction in Westwood. Kelly’s Oregon teams were led by players like Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota. He may still be a year or two away from producing a player of that caliber, with Dorian Thompson-Robinson (seven TDs, four interceptions) returning this fall. Even if the Bruins improve on defense, they aren’t marginally better on that side of the ball than WSU’s first three opponents. Cougars 38, Bruins 31. (4-0, 1-0).
WSU at Utah
ESPN College GameDay will probably choose a matchup between Ohio State and Nebraska, but Salt Lake City may also be a dark-horse destination for the popular preview show in Week 5. If the Cougars win out, as I suspect, they’ll be on the cusp of a top-15 spot, and the Utes, already at No. 14, will have a chance to crack the top 10. After seeing three bottom-30 FBS defenses in the first four weeks – and the FCS Bears – WSU’s Air Raid will be tested by a unit that has three NFL players on the defensive line and possibly five or six more behind it. Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss, who accounted for 226 rushing yards in Pullman last year, form an explosive tandem in the backfield. All of that, plus Utah’s home-field advantage, may be too much to overcome. Utes 27, Cougars 24. (4-1, 1-1).
WSU at Arizona State
A bye week comes at the ideal time for WSU, following what promises to be a rugged, physical game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Cougars will encounter an elite Pac-12 tailback for the third time in as many weeks, but Eno Benjamin won’t be enough to offset ASU’s inexperience at quarterback, where Herm Edwards is starting a true freshman, or the loss of the league’s best wide receiver, N’Keal Harry. I expect WSU will drop a few games on the road this season, but they should survive this one. Barely. Cougars 34, Sun Devils 30. (5-1, 2-1)
Colorado at WSU
Not too long after the Cougars flattened the Buffaloes 31-7 in Boulder last season, the school fired coach Mike MacIntyre and brought in Mel Tucker. CU brings back third-year starting quarterback and the wide receiver corps is headlined by one of the top players in the country, Laviska Shenault Jr. But it’ll take Tucker a few years to fix the issues on defense and while CU has potential on offense, the Buffs have repeatedly been stoned by the Cougars’ defense, scoring just seven points and managing just 471 yards in the last two meetings. WSU extends its win streak to three games. Cougars 42, Buffaloes 21. (6-1, 3-1)
WSU at Oregon
The most anticipated game on the schedule – other than the Apple Cup, perhaps – is the pre-Halloween divisional clash between the Cougars and Ducks. Oregon, of course, has hired away three of Leach’s assistants and the Ducks will be aiming to end a four-game skid against the Cougars. There are many ways one might handicap this game, but I choose to use the same rationale I use for the Apple Cup. Until the Ducks, who’ve given up 163 points in the last four meetings while scoring just 101 of their own, can prove they have a viable solution for Leach’s Air Raid, the Cougars have the edge. It is worth noting the Ducks were wounded on the offensive line when these teams met last year, and the UO running backs are a year batter, so I expect the margin of victory (15.5 points since 2015) will be much tighter this time around. Cougars 45, Ducks 43. (7-1, 4-1)
WSU at Cal
Two years ago, the Cougars folded at Cal after picking up a huge road win in Eugene. Though a bye week separates the games this year, I’m anticipating a similar result in 2019. Well, to an extent. Under Justin Wilcox, the Golden Bears have been especially stingy on defense – and statistically a little better against WSU than even cross-state rival UW. Cal’s held WSU to 22 points in the last two meetings, while the Huskies have limited to the Cougars to 29. The Golden Bears don’t project to be good on offense and they ranked below the 11 other teams in the conference last year, totaling just 343 yards per game. But Memorial Stadium can pose a tricky challenge to visiting teams – No. 8 WSU lost there two years ago and No. 15 UW stumbled last season – and the Cougars may still be vulnerable a few weeks after a trademark win at Autzen Stadium. Golden Bears 20, Cougars 14. (7-2, 4-2)
Stanford at WSU
Without the tall, strong pass-catching threats the Cardinal had last season and running back Bryce Love, it’s hard to tell what’s next for Stanford’s offense. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin and Kaden Smith were a formidable trio last season and those three were responsible for 303 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the 2018 loss to the Cougars. Stanford’s history of producing great tight ends and running backs would suggest the Cardinal will do it again, but the answers aren’t too obvious right now. Plus, in three consecutive losses to WSU, Stanford has allowed an average of 35 points. This prediction could change if the Cardinal establish an offensive identity at some point, but in late August, I’ll take the Cougars. Cougars 30, Cardinal 27. (8-2, 5-2)
Oregon State at WSU
On paper, the Beavers have a good amount of offensive firepower, especially if QB Jake Luton – a former Idaho backup – can stay healthy for an entire season. Luton, running back Jermar Jefferson and wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins are enough to make most defensive coordinators cringe, but second-year coach Jonathan Smith may be doing the same if the Beavers don’t improve on the defensive side of the ball. OSU has famously struggled against Air Raid quarterbacks and the Cougars, in five consecutive wins against the Beavers, have averaged 46.8 points, passing for 27 touchdowns and 2,119 yards. Even with WSU breaking in a new QB, there’s no reason to think the Cougars can’t carve up the Beavers again. Cougars 59, Beavers 34. (9-2, 6-2)
WSU at Washington
Most are well-versed in the recent history of the rivalry game, but much of the Huskies’ success these last four years was due to the backfield pairing of Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. UW’s new tandem, Jacob Eason and Salvon Ahmed, should add a new wrinkle to the Apple Cup and for the second time in two years, the Cougars will be introducing a new QB to the game. Conditions weren’t optimal for the home team in 2018, but they typically aren’t the last week of November – whichever side of the state the game is played. Applying the same logic I applied to the Oregon pick above, the Huskies will stifle the Cougars in another game that should be consequential to the Pac-12 North race, and WSU’s Apple Cup drought will reach seven games. Huskies 27, Cougars 17. (9-3, 6-3)