For the record, Steele says WSU will fall short of the six-win bowl minimum and predicts the Cougars to finish last in the Pacific-12's North division. But Steele doesn't believe this is indicative of Washington State's quality this season under first-year coach Mike Leach. He thinks the Cougars will be much improved. But he's not a fan of their league schedule, which calls for some tough opponents at home (Oregon, California), and lesser foes (Oregon State, Utah, Arizona State) on the road.
"I think the Pac-12 is a very tough conference, and you've got to pick someone to finish sixth in each division," Steele said.
A couple breaths later, Steele said it wouldn't surprise him if the Cougars won seven or eight games.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Mike Leach is playing in a bowl game for an 11th straight year," Steele said. "Washington State was on the verge of winning seven last year. It's a dangerous Washington State team."
Steele said he was close to putting Washington State on his list of "Most Improved Teams." Those teams had losing records the previous year, and Steele says about 70 percent end up playing in a bowl game.
Steele's statistical machine says the Cougs will be battling two serious trend lines when they open the season at BYU on August 30. WSU has lost six straight road openers by an average score of 44-17, and they are 0-8 in non-conference away games since 2006.
Steele predicts receiver Marquess Wilson will become the star of WSU's offense. Steele is so high on Wilson that he placed the Cougar junior on his preseason first-team All-American team along with USC's Robert Woods and Clemson's Sammy Watkins.
"I understand he didn't have a great spring, but this is the Texas Tech offense. If I'm Mike Leach, I'm looking at this guy as someone who might have a season like Michael Crabtree a few years back," Steele said.
In Steele's mind, what will separate Washington State from a losing record to a bowl team is the progress of the offensive line.
"They're going to be adjusting to a new scheme. Last year's offensive line wasn't overwhelming, but it was OK. If they can adjust to Leach's blocking schemes and hold the fort, it will be huge for Washington State," Steele said.
One Steele projection that might open some eyes is incoming freshman Gabriel Marks, who he lists as a starting inside receiver, a position of some depth for WSU. Steele explains that Marks' starting berth "isn't necessarily a projection for August, but by the end of the year. Sometimes I project at some point of the season."
Wilson and outside linebacker Travis Long landed on Steele's Pac-12 preseason first team.
As mentioned before, Steele thinks the Pac-12 will be a formidable league in 2012. Only the SEC and Big 12 will be stronger, he says. Steele projects USC to win the Pac-12 South and Oregon in the Pac-12 North, and says both will play in a BCS bowl game. Steele's Pac-12 under-the-radar type is Oregon State because of the returning talent and coach Mike Riley's reputation for overachieving.
Steele has produced a college football preseason magazine for 18 years. It started as a labor of love, where 30 years ago Steele began writing a football newsletter after scouring preseason magazines. Steele's original magazine was 188 black-and-white pages of newsprint.
Today, Steele employs a staff of 20 to put out a magazine with a circulation of about 500,000. Steele's website is growing and becoming much like his magazine ... and in time, figures to be bigger.
"With the magazine I write the first draft, and then I have to chop and chop and chop to make it fit. The web is unlimited. We're not worried about cramming everything into 344 pages," said Steele, who pauses, laughs and says "and we can make the type size bigger."
Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel