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Analysis: Ranking the games on Washington State’s new schedule, from least to most winnable

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 5, 2020

For a team that’s yet to hold a true practice more than eight months into coach Nick Rolovich’s tenure at the school, Washington State football’s fortunes are still fairly hard – no, nearly impossible – to predict this fall.

But, now that the Pac-12 has released a schedule, we can at least begin to assess the Cougars’ opponents. Rather than predicting WSU’s win-loss record – something we may do eventually, after getting a better sense of who’ll be on the field for Rolovich – we’ll start by gauging the games on the Cougars’ revised schedule, based on degree of difficulty.

With a “1” indicating the strongest degree of difficulty and a “5” signifying the easiest, here are WSU’s six games, from most winnable to least winnable.

Nov. 27 vs. WashingtonWinnability scale: 1

New head coaches and new quarterbacks on both sides of this rivalry game do little in terms of convincing me this game will turn out much different than its last seven predecessors. The early exits of UW’s defensive All-American candidates Joe Tryon and Levi Onwuzurike nearly tempted me to boost the winnability number from a “1” to a “2,” but based on Jimmy Lake’s ability to reload on defense, it’s hard to believe the Huskies don’t have another pair of All-Pac-12 athletes waiting in the wings at both positions. Rolovich’s run-and-shoot should be less predictable than Mike Leach’s Air Raid, especially in year one, and maybe it’s worth noting the coach’s Hawaii team scored 20 points during a visit to Montlake last September. For reference, the Cougars haven’t scored 20 since they last won the Apple Cup, in 2012. Without Jacob Eason and Salvon Ahmed, maybe UW’s offense regresses a bit, too. But even if WSU begins to close the gap, it’s hard to believe the Cougars won’t still be working through growing pains on both sides of the ball by the fourth week of the season. Also, we should note UW’s margin of victory in the Apple Cup since 2012: Huskies 247, Cougars 99.

Nov. 14. vs. Oregon

Winnability scale: 2

The defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions lost the most popular player on the roster to graduation, but Oregon’s losses are much deeper and more significant than quarterback Justin Herbert. In addition to the players that were expected to go – a list including Herbert, Troy Dye, Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux, Jacob Breeland and Juwan Johnson – the Ducks had a recent wave of NFL opt-outs. Now they’ll probably have to replace Penei Sewell, Thomas Graham Jr., Brady Breeze and Jevon Holland. Even with all the turnover, the Ducks will probably be picked to win the Pac-12. That’s based on the underclassmen they have returning – All-American candidate Kayvon Thibodeaux as the headliner – and the recruiting class they just pulled in. Don’t completely rule the Cougs out, though. Even during Oregon’s best season since 2014, and WSU’s worst since 2014, the Ducks struggled to put the Cougars away in Eugene. Oregon’s inexperience on the offensive line and at QB, that is if Tyler Shough gets the nod, could make this game more interesting than it’ll look on paper. For all the uncertainty there seems to be in Eugene, there’s as much if not more in Pullman, and just like the Ducks, the Cougars will be far from a finished product by the second week of the season.

Dec. 4 at USC

Winnability scale: 2

During Pat Chun’s recent radio appearance with Cougar broadcasters Matt Chazanow, Alex Brink, Jessamyn McIntyre and Derek Deis, the WSU Athletic Director made a comment, in jest, that “we voted for the schedule we felt was best for Washington State and that wasn’t the one that came out today.” In other words, there were basically six crossover scenarios for WSU – which would’ve played a road game regardless – and the Cougars drew the most challenging one. I suppose one could also make an argument traveling to Salt Lake City in December wouldn’t be an ideal choice, but USC should be the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12 South and the Trojans probably return the best quarterback in the conference, Kedon Slovis, in what could be a rare down year for the position. Three of the last four meetings between the Trojans and Cougars were decided by three points, and the Southern California natives on WSU’s roster are generally amped up to play in this game, taking a chip-on-the-shoulder approach against a team that didn’t recruit them. Under Clay Helton, USC hasn’t been the invincible force many of its boosters and fans think it should be, and the Trojans have been susceptible to one or two bizarre letdowns almost every year. I maintain there’s a 50% chance the Cougars will upset either USC or Oregon, but it’s still a tough ask on the road in the first year of a rebuild.

Dec. 12 vs. California

Winnability scale: 3

WSU’s offensive woes against UW are well-documented, but the Cougars’ inability to score against Cal are on par with those in the Apple Cup. In the last three games combined, WSU’s managed just 42 points against each. Justin Wilcox’s Cal teams have been more formidable than they seem on paper and it’s hard to imagine that won’t be the case again in 2020, despite losing the likes of Evan Weaver, Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins. But, even without Weaver, the Golden Bears bring back a fierce linebacking tandem in Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode, and defensive back Camryn Bynum recently opted back in. Also, QB Chase Garbers has the ability to be one of the most effective players in the conference. Remember, the Cougars had major problems handling his backup, Devon Modster (4 total TDs), last season. If this game was in Berkeley, I’d probably drop the winnability number to “2.” But it’s not and, depending on the final crossover matchups, the Golden Bears may be the only team in the conference forced to make a Pullman trip in the month of December. The Cougars may not like certain aspects of the 2020 schedule, but they shouldn’t complain about not having to leave the Palouse for their three toughest conference games.

Nov. 21 at Stanford

Winnability scale: 3

Following eight seasons of at least eight wins, last year was admittedly a dud for David Shaw and the Cardinal. The coach’s track record would indicate that won’t happen again, but Stanford doubters will have plenty of ammo entering the 2020 season. Davis Mills had all but beaten out K.J. Costello, so the senior’s transfer to Mississippi State may have been a null point either way, but now Stanford places its offense in the hands of someone who went 2-4 as the team’s starter last season. Some would contend the Cardinal have lost their top quarterback (Costello), running back (Cameron Scarlett), tight end (Colby Parkinson), offensive lineman (Walker Little) and cornerback (Paulson Adebo). And, since we mentioned WSU’s recent win-loss tally against most of the teams listed above, we should note the Cougars haven’t dropped a game in this series since 2015. They’ve averaged 39.2 points in their four wins and I have a hunch scoring points won’t be an issue for WSU in this game, even if it is just the third game of Rolovich’s run-and-shoot install.

Nov. 7 at Oregon State

Winnability scale: 4

While the Cougars would benefit from a few tune-ups prior to the most winnable game on the schedule, Oregon State, which will also be debuting a new starting quarterback, would probably say the same. With a roster much less talented than the one he possesses now, Rolovich knocked off the Beavers 31-28 in Honolulu last season, and it’s no secret the Cougars have had their way with OSU, winning the last six matchups scoring 48 points on average. In WSU’s home finale last season, the quarterbacks, Anthony Gordon and Jake Luton, combined to throw for 1,014 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. The signal-callers will be the top storyline coming in, but the result may be dictated by which running back – WSU’s Max Borghi or OSU’s Jermar Jefferson – outplays the other, and which defense has the resolve to come up with a timely stop in the fourth quarter when both have already given up 30, 40 or even 50 points. The Cougars seem to have the strength up front to mitigate the damage done by OSU star pass-rusher Hamilcar Rashed, and while both lost productive receivers, WSU has a clear edge in that department as well.

Nonetheless, WSU will unquestionably view this as its best chance to grab a win before Dec. 19. The bad news is OSU feels the same way.

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