There’s a good chance a handful of Washington State football players will escape the cold of Pullman for warm-weather locales like California, Arizona or Texas next week.
For the first time since 2014, however, a bowl game won’t be the destination.
The Cougars were already facing long odds when it came to the convoluted 2020 bowl season, needing to beat Utah on the road Saturday to merely qualify for the college football postseason with the Pac-12-mandated .500 record. With only four bowls in play for the conference, WSU would also need luck. Some combination of USC, Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Colorado would probably have to opt out for the 2-2 Cougars to nab a backdoor invite.
It won’t come down to that for the Cougars. Even if everything aligned for WSU, first-year coach Nick Rolovich confirmed the next time his team would be playing competitive football after Saturday’s game at Rice Eccles-Stadium in Salt Lake City (10:30 a.m., FS1) will be on Sept. 4, 2021, in Pullman against Utah State.
“I think this will be it,” Rolovich said Tuesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “I think it’s been incredibly hard on these guys. The uncertainty of what’s going to hit next, what’s going to hit what team. I think they all deserve a ton of credit – I’m talking about the players – for getting to this point. You guys have no idea what they go through, and it’s not any of your fault, but this is completely abnormal for them and they continue to battle through, to represent Cougs the best they can, and I appreciate that for them.”
The Cougars benefited from the exposure of bowl games each of the past five years, qualifying twice for the San Diego Holiday Bowl (2016, 2017), the El Paso Sun Bowl (2015), the San Antonio Alamo Bowl (2018) and the Phoenix Cheez-It Bowl (2019).
Coaches compare the three or four weeks of bowl prep time to a built-in fall/spring camp period – something that can be valuable to younger players or walk-ons who don’t take as many reps during the regular season. But with their four-game season ending Saturday, the Cougars would have had just one, maybe two weeks, of additional practice were they competing in a bowl game. The reward of 10-14 more practices may not be worth the mental and emotional exhaustion of spending 10-14 more days in Pullman, where players have set 6 a.m. alarm clocks every day for three months to take daily COVID-19 tests.
“Bowl games aren’t bowl games (in 2020), they’re really just another away game it looks like,” Rolovich said. “All I can say is I appreciate the guys who’ve made it through and I think they’ll be better leaders because of this year. It was incredibly hard, but I think they’ll be better future leaders of this world and their families because of the adversity they faced this year. That’s how I want to look at it.”
In this instance, players seem to be in lockstep with their coach, weighing the perks of bowl season against the opportunity to return home and see family members and friends for the first time since the summer.
“It’s been a long season, we’ve been here since June just working,” senior cornerback George Hicks III said. “We’ve been away from our families and we’ve only played four games. We’ve had a lot of games canceled, a lot of things have hit us, so I think the biggest thing with coach Rolo and a lot of the guys in the building is what if we continued on practicing, continued on and then say it gets canceled because of COVID from one of the two teams. So, that’s something we’re all disappointed in.
“We’ll be back here next year. We’ll be in a bowl game, different situation, different scenarios.”
It’s hard to fault a team that’s experienced as many COVID-19 disruptions as any in the conference. On Nov. 20, the Cougars were already on the team bus prepared to leave for Moscow-Pullman Regional Airport to play Stanford when they learned four additional players would have to enter COVID-19 protocol, prompting the teams to cancel. Last Saturday, WSU players were in the middle of pregame warmups at Martin Stadium when they were alerted their game against California was called off because a member of the Golden Bears tested positive.
“It’s been really hard, probably getting pulled off the field at Cal, getting pulled off the bus going to Stanford doesn’t help the confidence of sticking around for Christmas and seeing what’s out there,” Rolovich said. “It’s just a different world.”