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Washington State “predictions” mailbag: Will Max Borghi lead the country in receptions? Will the Cougars be a top-10 team by November?

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 28, 2019, 10:22 p.m.

Rather than ask you for your #CougQuestions this week, we made a check at the line of scrimmage, changed the play and asked you instead submit your #CougPredictions.

You make your bold assertions about the 2019 Washington State football team, we tell you whether you’re right or wrong.

I’m probably too late, but my assertion is we lose Leach at the end of this season. Not hoping for it, but I am preparing myself.

– Maria R.

(Collectively, Coug nation cringes)

This is a subject that’s certainly made for some uneasy offseasons, of course hitting its peak after the 2017 Apple Cup, when it seemed Leach was a ballpoint pen away from signing a deal to become Tennessee’s next head coach. The situation was mishandled by former Volunteers Athletic Director John Currie and WSU fans breathed a sigh of relief when Tennessee made it official with Jeremy Pruitt a few weeks later.

But as long as Leach keeps stacking up eight-plus win seasons, which he has each of the last four years, the eighth-year coach will keep programs in every Power Five conference interested. And, at the very least, Leach seems willing to entertain the offers if he figures it may be a good fit.

Until he professes his undying love to Pullman, Cougar Country, the Lentil Festival and Butch T. Cougar, I suspect Leach will take phone calls. But it’s anyone’s guess when the perfect situation will surface, let alone what that perfect situation would look like. Trying to gauge Leach’s happiness is more difficult than stopping his offense. Wait, no, it’s more difficult.

Over the summer, Leach told radio show host Clay Travis he’d “definitely listen” if the NFL called, but he’s also never indicated coaching professional football is on his bucket list and he’s obviously found a niche in the college game.

Without evaluating the job security of every Power Five coach in the country, I’d take the odds on Leach coaching the Cougars through the 2020 football season. After 17 full seasons as a head coach, Leach has never left a job willingly. That doesn’t mean he’s a WSU lifer, but there’s nothing to suggest he’s on his way out anytime soon.

The Cougs will be ranked in the top 10 the first week of November.

– Stuart O.

If the Cougars follow my game-by-game predictions (printed in Sunday’s newspaper), I believe it’s within the realm of possibility. But according to those same predictions, that top-10 ranking wouldn’t last too long either, as I have the Cougars posting their second loss of the season to Cal on Nov. 9.

For WSU to achieve this, the Cougars would have to take care of all three nonconference games, then go at least 4-1 in the first five Pac-12 games, against UCLA, Utah, Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon – though 5-0 is ideal. I anticipate both the Utes and Ducks will still be ranked by the time both host the Cougars, and I have WSU splitting those games – a loss in Salt Lake City and a win in Eugene.

If the Cougars take a 7-1 record into the game against Cal, it’s not totally unrealistic think they could slip into the top 10, albeit they’ll presumably have a bunch of one-loss teams from other Power Five conferences breathing down their neck and voters may choose to reward a two-loss SEC team with a better perceived strength of schedule.

The only path that would absolutely guarantee a spot in the top 10 would be an unbeaten, 8-0 record. Remember two years ago when the Cougars were ranked No. 8 in the poll after opening with a 6-0 record.

If the Cougars reach the top 10, it means they’ve probably taken care of both the Utes and Ducks on the road. They did it two years ago, but I’m betting it doesn’t happen again and you see WSU somewhere between 12-15 in the post-Halloween poll.

7-5; Las Vegas Bowl. This is the year our lack of 4-star recruiting catches up with us; we can’t outscore UH and Utah, Stan & UO get revenge. Same UW as always. This is worst case but I’ll be lovin’ a 5th straight bowl, GO COUGS!

– Tom M.

According to my own throws at the dartboard, the Cougars will win nine and lose three, dropping road games at Utah, Cal and Washington. I’ll admit, an 8-4 record “felt right,” but I just couldn’t bring myself to picking a fourth loss – and honestly couldn’t find it on the schedule.

Houston’s offense is potent, but the defense ranks somewhere between Oregon State and Northern Colorado. WSU’s offense, I believe, can match Houston’s and the Cougars (of Pullman) are significantly better on defense. If Tracy Claeys’ defense can manage four or five stops, and produce a couple of turnovers, I believe WSU pulls away for a two-, three-score win.

I do think the Cougars will have trouble winning at Utah, but I like their chances at home against a Stanford team that still needs to form an offensive identity without Bryce Love, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and a few other dynamic pass-catchers that have since graduated. Oregon was a tough pick, but WSU’s recent string of success against the Ducks lead me to think the Cougars pick up a fifth consecutive win over the team in Eugene. Oregon’s defense hasn’t formed a blueprint to stop, let alone limit, the Air Raid and the Cougars have a full complement of weapons to put up 30 points or more against the Ducks for the seventh straight year. Don’t forget, this game hasn’t been decided by a touchdown or less since 2015.

And the Apple Cup? Yeah, we’re on the same page there.

Much as I wouldn’t mind a mid-December trip to Las Vegas, I expect the Alamo Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Redbox Bowl or Sun Bowl will reach to grab an eight- or nine-win WSU team before the Vegas Bowl has a chance.

The Washington State University will have Max Borghi win the Pac-12 player of the year award. Gordon and Easop Winston will connect for 14 TDs and Easop will go in the first round of the 2020 draft. If this is right, you have to give me a job working for WSU Football.

– Troy C.

You may strike out on each of these three. All right, my sincerest apologies, you definitely will.

Borghi figures to have a huge season as the primary ball-carrier and I’d take the odds on him leading the Cougars in total touchdowns (not including the quarterback). But WSU hasn’t gone back-to-back winning the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year since another running back, Reuben Mayes, did in 1984 and 1985. Air Raid running backs are still underappreciated, with last season being another prime example. Even with 1,173 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns, James Williams wasn’t considered for the All-Pac-12 teams. Borghi’s numbers should see a drastic jump, but to win that award he’s have to outplay the likes of Justin Herbert, Laviska Shenault Jr., Eno Benjamin and Zach Moss, who all come into the year with considerably more hype than Borghi.

The chemistry between Gordon and Winston is pretty remarkable and unlike anything I’ve seen between a single quarterback and receiver since I started covering the Cougars. And no surprise there, those two connected 62 times for 986 yards and 12 touchdowns in junior college. Fourteen touchdowns, though? That’s pretty lofty, especially when you consider Winston and Tay Martin shared the team lead with eight scores apiece in 2018. Winston may get a few more targets this season solely based on his rapport with Gordon, but the Cougars may be too deep across the board for any single player to exceed 10 TDs, let alone get to 14.

Barring unforeseen events, Shenault Jr. of Colorado should be the only wideout in the conference to go in the first round. Martin and Dezmon Patmon could hear their names called in the later rounds. Maybe scouts will recognize Winston is better than his 6-foot, 190-pound frame, or 40-yard dash suggests, and he too gets a chance to be picked up late.

Yep, 0 for 3. Sorry, Troy, wouldn’t quit your day job.

2019 WSU will have the most rushing attempts in a season by a Mike Leach-led offense.

– 509Griz

Well, let’s backtrack. WSU’s rushing attempts per season under Leach: 281 in 2018, 303 in 2017, 362 in 2016, 294 in 2015, 243 in 2014, 243 in 2013 and 252 in 2012. With the exception of the Cougars’ 362 rushing attempts in 2016, each of those would’ve ranked last in the country last season.

When WSU hit 362 attempts three years ago, the Cougars had a formidable trio of backs in Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and Williams. Each of the three carried the ball at least 85 times, with Wicks at 88 attempts, Morrow at 90 and Williams at 102. The Cougars weren’t as deep at wide receiver that year, but they knew what they had in the backfield.

Williams had 122 carries in 2018 and Borghi had 72. I’d expect Borghi to easily cross the 100-carry plateau this fall, but the Cougars don’t have the same balance the 2016 group had and there aren’t three backs on the roster capable of shouldering 80-plus attempts. Borghi has the capacity and so does Deon McIntosh, who rushed 200 times at East Mississippi after carrying the ball 65 times at Notre Dame as a redshirt freshman, but it’s unlikely the Cougars give the ball to Clay Markoff more than 50 times throughout the season, and Jouvensly Bazil’s role will be limited.

Not only do I expect the Cougars to fall short of 362 carries, I’d guess they barely break 300. But we should revisit this question a year from now. Borghi will be a junior, McIntosh will be a senior and Bazil will be primed for more of a workload. Plus, the Cougars will be replacing at least four starting wideouts and a starting quarterback.

Max Borghi leads the nation in receptions by RB.

– Cougar D.

I don’t see why not …

Williams achieved this milestone last season, catching 83 passes in 13 games from Gardner Minshew. Those 83 receptions ranked No. 1 on the team and No. 2 in the conference.

But Borghi wasn’t too far behind, catching 53 passes for 374 yards and four touchdowns.

For now, it’s fair to assume WSU doesn’t change course and Gordon feels as comfortable dumping off to his running backs as Minshew did. Borghi, of course, fills in as the lead tailback and with increased reps, a jump from 50 catches to 80 catches seems realistic enough.

As a sophomore, Williams had 12 fewer receptions, but his 71 catches were still the most by a running back in program history. Those 71 receptions were also the most in the country.

The Cougars have led this category each of the last two seasons, and Borghi has the skill set to make it happen again. Plus, he may only need 65-70 catches, which seems plenty manageable for someone whose workload could nearly double in 2019.

WSU will lead the Pac-12 in sacks.

– Danny D.

WSU made a massive jump here between the 2016 and ’17 football seasons, totaling 37 sacks two years ago after getting to the quarterback just 20 times the year prior. There was some reason to think that production wouldn’t continue after Hercules Mata’afa, but even without their menacing All-American edge rusher and even amid a change in defensive coordinators, the Cougars did themselves one better – literally – in 2018 by improving the sack count from 37 to 38.

At WSU, scheme seems to matter as much as personnel, so even for a group that’s losing its most effective pass-rusher for the second straight year – Logan Tago this time – there’s reason to believe the Cougars could contend for the Pac-12 lead again. Plus, they return more than they lose, bringing back starting defensive tackle Will Rodgers III and “Rush” linebacker Willie Taylor III, who each had four sacks in 2018, along with defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo, who’s had 9 1/2 sacks in his career despite five games the last two seasons with injury.

While I won’t put it past the Cougars to finish near the top of the leaderboard, I’ll give the nod to Utah until I’m proven wrong. On paper, the Utes should have one of the best defensive fronts in the country, bringing back three All-American-caliber linemen in Leki Fotu, John Penisini and Bradlee Anae.

Up front, WSU does seem to be deeper than it’s been under Leach – something that was reinforced when the Cougars put out their Week 1 depth chart, which listed former West Virginia All-American Lamonte McDougle as one of two backup nose tackles, alongside Dallas Hobbs.

Theo’s Dad will read more of his Son’s tweets and articles this season!

– David L.

And if you don’t, just remember he knows where you live.

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