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August 30, 2012 at 4:32 AM

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College football: Why the Washington State Cougars will finish 6-6

Photo credit: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

In case you missed it, I did this same schedule surfing post for Washington on Wednesday and came up with an optimistic 8-4 mark for the Huskies. Click here to read that one. On the Washington State front, I also wrote a column today expecting big things from Mike Leach. Click here to read that piece.

Expanding this annual prediction post to include Washington State is long overdue. It only took Mike Leach coming to Pullman to make it happen. See, the coach is already spurring an incredible turnaround.

The Cougars, who were 4-8 last season under former coach Paul Wulff, still have plenty of building to do, but Leach is inheriting the core of an offense that produced 29.8 points and 422.4 yards per game last season. He can work with that, for sure. Because Washington State should have the kind of high-powered offense that defines Leach's teams, the Cougars can be competitive immediately.

They're far from a finished product, especially with a defense full of holes, but even on D, you'll see signs of positive change under new coordinator Mike Breske, who is developing a multiple and aggressive unit that won't let teams dominate time of possession. They're going to force the issue. They're going to give up big plays or make big plays. It's the right strategy, too, at least in the early Leach years at WSU. It makes no sense for a Leach offense to be on the sidelines for long stretches.

I think this is a classic 6-6 team. That would be enough to make the Cougars a bowl team for the first time in nine years. I wouldn't be surprised if they reach 7-5 (they need to upset BYU tonight to do that), but in Year 1 for Leach, let's be conservative. Besides, it'll still take a great coaching effort to get to 6-6.

Before I break down the schedule, let me first offer a few assumptions that I'm hanging this prediction on:

1. Leach's offense will be ranked in the top three in the Pac-12. If you create a standard based on the conference's stats from last year, that means the Cougars could need to average at least 36 points and 465 yards a game. That's no small task, but remember that the last time we saw Leach's offense, Texas Tech was putting up 37 points and 470.8 yards a game in 2009 with lesser top-end talent than the Cougars have right now. If the Cougars can move the ball and score like that, it creates a wider margin for error, which is a huge key to this season. I'm basing a lot of my opinion on the Cougars on this happening.

2. Jeff Tuel will stay healthy and throw for 4,000-plus yards. Here's a crazy stat about Leach's quarterbacks at Texas Tech: In 10 seasons, they failed to throw for at least 4,000 yards just three times. Kliff Kingsbury's 3,412-yard total in 2000, Leach's first season, was the lowest output. And that was still an average 284.3 passing yards a game. Leach's QBs threw for more than 5,000 yards four times at Texas Tech. In terms of raw talent, Tuel is more skilled than all of Leach's Tech quarterbacks. He has good receiving options, including the dominant Marquess Wilson. The Cougars are going to move the ball through the air almost at will, and if Tuel does get injured again this season, you saw last season that Connor Halliday is capable of big numbers. Washington State has one of the healthiest quarterback situations in college football.

3. Leach hasn't lost his touch when it comes to guiding teams to bowl appearances. All 10 of his Texas Tech teams qualified for bowls. That was quite a feat in Lubbock, especially considering how strong the Big 12 was during that time. Do you really think that Leach can't take advantage of a Pac-12 full of teams in transition this year? Don't underestimate his knack for finding a way to win.

4. The Cougars won't have an abnormal amount of injuries. Depth is perhaps this team's greatest weakness. It can't withstand a rash of misfortune. All football teams lose key players to injury during the rugged season, but as long as the Cougars don't lose, say, seven of them, they'll be OK. I'm basing this prediction on just a normal amount of injuries.

OK, here's how I break down the Cougars' schedule:

Games they should win
Home: Sept. 8 vs. Eastern Washington
Road: Sept. 14 vs. UNLV
Home: Sept. 22 vs. Colorado
Comment: The Eastern Washington game might be the toughest of these three. The Cougars should put up some eye-popping offensive numbers in all of these games.

Games they should lose
Road: Thursday vs. BYU
Seattle "home" game: Sept. 29 vs. No. 5 Oregon
Road: Oct. 27 vs. No. 21 Stanford
Road: Nov. 3 vs. Utah
Comment: Do the Cougars have a road upset in them? If they want to finish above .500, they will probably have to win one of these games. They're almost two-touchdown underdogs to BYU tonight, but I have a feeling that game could be closer than expected. If not BYU, Washington State's best chance at a road upset might be against Utah, but the Utes are considerably more physically imposing. That will be a classic matchup of potent offense versus formidable defense.

50/50 games
Road: Oct. 6 vs. Oregon State
Home: Oct. 13 vs. California
Home: Nov. 10 vs. UCLA
Road: Nov. 17 vs. Arizona State
Home: Nov. 23 vs. Washington
Comment: The Cougars' bowl hopes could rest on them finishing above .500 in these five games. And all of these opponents could range anywhere from disappointing to pretty good. On paper, UCLA and Arizona State seem like the most manageable for the Cougars. If so, could Washington State then win one of three against Oregon State, Cal and Washington? It helps that the Cal and Washington games are at home. The Bears are always susceptible to a beat down when they're on the road. And this year's Apple Cup could be a classic game.

Other keys to this season, at least in terms of schedule managing:

  • Getting off to at least a 3-1 start is extremely important. After BYU, the Cougs play three games they must win if they want to be a bowl team. Eastern Washington, UNLV and Colorado are their easiest games of the year.
  • Swing games: Back-to-back games against Oregon State (road) and Cal (home) could define this season. The three-game stretch to close the year against UCLA, Arizona State and Washington will be huge, too.
  • The Cougars don't play USC this season, and missing the Trojans has created a manageable situation: Washington State doesn't play any impossible stretch of games like the Huskies do in the first six weeks. There are only two games ranked in the preseason Top 25 on the schedule. The Cougs' toughest stretch of games: at home against California on Oct. 13, followed by road games against Stanford on Oct. 27 and Utah on Nov. 3. That's difficult, but not impossible. And the Cougars have their bye week between Cal and Stanford.

The 2012 Cougars: 6-6. Back to bowl worthiness in Leach's first season. That's my prediction. And when the season goes nothing like this, this post will self-destruct.

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