Oct. 15, Martin Stadium
2015 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
2015 Recap: After going 3-9 in 2014, Mike Leach's Cougars rebounded in a big way in 2015, winning nine games on the strength of a good offense and a significantly improved defense. Washington State finished third in the North behind Stanford and Oregon, which is altogether respectable, especially considering that the Cougars beat Oregon and were within two points of beating Stanford. Washington State did have an ignominious loss to Portland State to open the season which kept the Cougars from the ten-win mark, but also had tremendous road wins against Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA. The season was a resounding success for Leach, who has likely bought himself several more years in Pullman.
Returning Starters: 14 (8 on offense, 6 on defense)
2016 Projection: As good as Washington State was in 2015, there's potential to be even slightly better in 2016. The Cougars return most of their skill talent on offense, including talented quarterback Luke Falk and stud receiver Gabe Marks, along with three out of five starting offensive linemen. Falk had a great year in 2015, throwing 38 touchdowns against just eight interceptions while completing almost 70% of his passes. He routinely threw over 50 passes per game, and four times threw over 60. He should be very comfortable in the system next year, and odds are he'll build on the big stats that he put up last season.
Defensively, the Cougars could be decent, but odds are they'll be comfortably below average again -- which is perfectly fine if the offense is close to elite. Washington State loses most of its starting defensive line from a year ago, but returns most of the secondary. We'd have to imagine that the Cougars' run defense won't be particularly good, but if they can find a pass rush that's as effective as last year (the Cougars were pretty disruptive on defense) and can generate turnovers at nearly the same rate (they averaged two per game last year) then the defense should be plenty good enough to pair with a very good offense.
The schedule is interesting for Washington State. They avoid Utah for Colorado this year, which has to be considered a win, but, to open conference season, Washington State has to play Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA in three consecutive weeks. After that, thinks get a bit easier, with road games against Arizona State and Oregon State followed by Arizona, California, and Colorado, but that opening stretch of the conference season could be what makes or breaks Washington State as a real contender in the North. The non-conference is manageable, with Eastern Washington and Idaho setting up as tackling dummies with a road trip to Boise State sandwiched between those two.
Given the always tricky conference schedule, replicating last season's 9-3 regular season record would make sense as the goal for the Cougars this year, and to get there Washington State probably needs to at least split the four games against Boise State, Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA. If the Cougars do that, they might very well contend in what should be a slightly down Pac-12 North, which could set up for a very fun Apple Cup at the end of the year.
Outlook for UCLA: As we just mentioned, UCLA will get Washington State at seemingly a pretty good time -- right after the Cougars have been beaten up by playing Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks. The Bruins, though, will have just run through a gauntlet of their own, and going up to Pullman is never easy. That this game comes in October rather than November has to be seen as a positive for UCLA, since there's less likelihood of snow and extreme cold.
The Bruins obviously lost this game last year, and Washington State is pretty much the same team, at least offensively, that beat UCLA last year. UCLA is not the same team, though, with some significant personnel turnover as well as scheme changes on both sides of the ball. How that plays out is anyone's guess, but we have to think that the changes in defensive scheme won't have too much of a different result against the Cougars, since they're going to pass the ball 60 times regardless. Offensively, the Bruins might perhaps be able to control the game a little more than last year.
It was a really weird game last year, with Washington State scoring the winning touchdown with just a few seconds left after a stirring drive led by Josh Rosen put the Bruins up by 3 with about a minute to go. UCLA was pretty lethargic offensively in the second half of that game, and the hope is that a new brain trust at the helm of the offense will help to avoid those sorts of periods of lethargy. In any case, winning this game could prove pretty critical to any Pac-12 South hopes UCLA is entertaining in the 2016 season.
Next up: Utah...