5 reasons to be optimistic about 2014 Cougs

THE COUGS were a pleasant surprise -- and ahead of schedule going bowling in Mike Leach's second season according to the pundits. But there is reason to believe the Cougs may still further surprise in 2014. Indeed, here are five of the reasons why...

In no particular order…

Scheduling. The Cougs this season have one of their better schedules in years. Washington State in 2014 has no back-to-back weeks on the road. The non-conference features three highly winnable games (Rutgers in Seattle, at Nevada, Portland State at home) and the worst that should happen is a 2-1 start. And the Cougs have another five conference games in Pullman beyond the non-conference schedule, playing host to Oregon, Cal, Arizona, USC and Washington. Wazzu has often gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to scheduling but there won't be many complaints about this crimson slate. It's the first time since 2010 that Oregon and USC come to Pullman. Bill Moos before last season pointed towards 2014, Mike Leach's third year in Pullman, as being when the Cougs would start winning with regularity. The '14 slate, with a bye right around midseason and another before the final two games, and with the way the home games break up the road series, it's all set up nicely to potentially make Moos a prophet.

Player Development. Use any metrics, any intangibles you want: There were marked improvements across the board between Year 1 to Year 2 of the Leach era at Washington State. In Year 3, as the returning starters become that much more learned in the system, as the team becomes that much better physically, as more of Leach's recruits reach the point where they're ready to truly compete at the Pac-12 level, that should all result in another good-sized step up in 2014. There is every reason to expect more consistency in '14. And as much as a good-sized portion of the fanbase lamented the inevitable player departures, most of the personnel either wasn't suited to Leach and Breske's schemes or, quite simply, weren't as good as the Pac-12 competition they faced. There remain some talent upgrades that need to happen beyond this season, but the gap has closed and it should narrow again in '14. The Cougs spent last year learning how to win and to get to a bowl game. They should no longer be learning to win, and that should result in more than six victories in '14.

Connor Halliday and the WRs. Halliday and Tyler Bruggman figure to stage a battle royale this spring and perhaps on into fall camp. But let's go with the averages for the sake of argument and assume the fifth-year senior holds onto the starting QB job over the second-year freshman. Every preview article you read this offseason will mention Halliday's woeful 22 interceptions in 2013. What they won't say is this: In the first seven games, Halliday threw 17 picks. Over the final five contests, he tossed five. If you're looking for signs that the light bulb has been switched on when it comes to Halliday' decision making, something Leach places an extraordinarily high premium on, there's no better place to start than there. This factoid also won't be mentioned as much as it should: Halliday tossed 34 TDs last season, and six of 'em came in the bowl game. More importantly, for the second straight year, he will have a bevy of receiving talent to connect with in '14, even more than last season. Dom Williams, Gabe Marks, Vince Mayle and River Cracraft are all capable of being the star on any given week. Add in Isaiah Myers, Kristoff Williams, Brett Bartolone, Rickey Galvin and Robert Lewis and it's a deep receiving corps that will keep defensive coordinators up at night. And oh by the way, don't sleep on the rookies. It's always comfortable to redshirt true freshmen but any one of this group -- Calvin Green, Barry Ware, Keith Harrington and Deion Singleton – could make it difficult on the coaches to keep them off the field in '14.

The offensive line. Most expected incremental improvement up front last season given the poor offensive line showing of 2012... But the WSU o-line was far, far better than that under Clay McGuire in Year 2. The Cougs allowed 32 sacks this past season after surrendering 57 in 2012. A 25-sack improvement? That's an astounding decrease. Sure, 32 is still an unsightly number but put it into context – the Cougs attempted an astounding 756 passes last season, more than any other team in the nation. (Most schools are in the 300-450 range). The improvement seen last season has CougFans thinking WSU will do more reloading than starting over in Year 3. And they may very well be right. Gunnar Eklund and Joe Dahl return on the left side and they're the only ones back. But Riley Sorensen, Cole Madison, Cody O'Connell and Devonte McClain all served notice this past season on the practice squad that they might be ready to not only step in but step beyond. A corner-turning season could also be in the offing from the likes of Sam Flor, Carlos Freeman, Eduardo Middleton and/or Jacob Seydel. There's much to be done to get from here to there, but given the vast improvement that took place in 2013, CougFans have more reasons for optimism up front in Year 3 than they've had in a while.

Defensive speed. Stay with us here. The Cougar D will be young and there are reasons for concern, including the fact that just about every defense in college football is facing greater challenges than before with the offensive explosion that's taken place over the last decade. The big issue last year was consistency – WSU would look great on one play, and the next they'd get gashed for 12 yards. The evidence in hand pre-spring doesn't' suggest that's going to go away. But in looking at the defense top to bottom, a strong case can be made the Cougar D will be (at least) a little more consistent. And the reason for that is speed. The Cougs have gotten faster on defense each of the past two seasons and that should continue in 2014. When things went bad last season, the Cougs fell short mentally just as much as physically last year. They're still going to be young in spots but several of those youngsters now have some experience under their belts. That should translate to more speed because instead of thinking, they're going to be reacting. WSU came out like a house on fire defensively in the opener at Auburn last season – they were confident, bordering on cocky. It will be a surprise if WSU doesn't come out the same way in '14 in Seattle against Rutgers. And it will be a disappointment if they don't continue to show that swagger on through Week 4, when Oregon comes to town.

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