Silver Linings

REST EASY, you pundit-following Cougar fans. In a summer fouled by too many pre-season forecasters slating the Cougars for a ninth or tenth place Pac-10 finish, a pair of refreshing entries have arrived on the region's newsstands: Phil Steel's College Football Preview, and ATS Consultants' Ultimate College Football Annual.

Hot off the press!Heck, even Lindy's, a perennial Cougar-basher, has come out with a better-than-usual crimson outlook.

Steele's review, however, is by far the most encouraging. He picks the Cougars to be among the 20 most improved teams in the nation and slots them for a No. 6 finish in the Pac-10 and a No. 39 ranking nationally.

Of note is that a year ago, 10 of the top 14 teams Steele picked for most improved status went to a bowl game following losing campaigns in 1999. For 2001, he picks the Cougars No. 13 on his most improved list.

"This has the makings of one those special Mike Price seasons," he writes, noting that the Cougars have 16 returning starters and 50 letter-winners. Those are numbers that are among the highest in the league --- and also on par with what the Cougars fielded in their two best seasons in the Price era, 1992 (9-3) and 1997 (10-2).

That experience, says Steele, could pay big-time benefits in a conference so competitive that 22 of 32 league games in 2000 were decided by seven points or less. The Cougars, of course, lost a record three over-time games in conference play. Fourth-year junior Jason Gesser, the Pac-10 defending passing efficiency leader, is another reason why Steele likes the Cougars' chances --- no Pac-10 team since 1991 has gone to the Rose Bowl without a veteran fourth-year QB at the helm.

Meanwhile, ATS Consultants, is predicting the Cougars will be a bowl contender at 6-5 --- with a win over UCLA being among the biggest upsets in the nation. Steele, by the way, picks UCLA to win the Pac-10 crown and ATS picks them fourth behind USC, Oregon and Oregon State.

WSU is a program on the rise, says ATS, calling the Cougars "One of this year's surprise teams." As long as the Cougs "take care of the ball, they will be in every game," ATS insists.

Steele and ATS aren't alone in their assessments of the Cougars. Lindy's says the Cougars are on "an up cycle" and could go bowling. They pick the Cougs No. 7 in the conference, with UCLA first and Oregon second. Another recent addition to the newsstands, Jim Feist's College Football Annual, slates the Crimson Soldiers for a No. 9 conference finish but qualifies that prediction very nicely: "The Cougars could be a dark horse in the Pac-10 race. They weren't all that bad last season and now they return experienced and confident."

For the record, Athlon's slates the Cougs for a tenth-place conference finish and has the audacity to suggest that the Mighty Cats will wind up somewhere between the horrific, 0-11, and the deflating, 3-8. College Sports Preview tabs the Cougars for an eighth-place conference showing and a 6-5 overall record. Street & Smiths, by far the most anemic of the pre-season mags, also picks the Cougars tenth.

NOTABLE NOTES

Inside Players' College Football Annual, a Vegas-oriented version of Phil Steele's preview, picks eight Cougars for first-, second- or third-team all-conference recognition: Tai Tupai, Lamont Thompson (first); Raonall Smith (second); and David Minnich, Nakoa McElrath, Marcus Trufant, Billy Newman and Tomasi Kongaika (third).

Street & Smith's also picks Thompson for first-team honors, but fails to include him on their honorable mention All-America list even though they selected four other, non-first-team-all-Pac-10 Cougars --- Derrick Roche, Smith, Newman and Trufant --- for HM A-A.

ATS Consultants tabbed Kongaika and Roche for first-team all-conference recognition.


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