Phil Steele breaks down the 2015 Cougars

WASHINGTON STATE always seems to be high up the lists when it comes to strength of schedule ratings -- but the Cougs are getting a bit of a break in 2015 according to Phil Steele’s newly released 2015 magazine preview. The magazine isn't due in stores until July 1 but we got our hands on one and combed through the 356 pages for what Steele had to say about Washington State.

Last year, WSU played the sixth toughest schedule according to Steele. This year, they play the 34th hardest. Arizona’s schedule, at No. 41 nationally, is the only one in the Pac-12 that Steele rates as easier.

Five Pac-12 teams are in the top ten toughest schedules according to Steele. Here's how he rates the rest of the conference slates: USC (2); Cal (4); UW (5); Utah (8); Stanford (9); ASU (18); UCLA (20); Oregon State (21); Colorado (22); Oregon (33).

Among the other WSU nuggets from Steele:

  • He forecasts the Cougs to finish tied for fourth in Pac-12 North with Washington and not making a bowl game. Steele says the Cougs will need to pull off two upsets to make a bowl (similar to the 2013 season).

  • Two of his nine categories call for WSU to attain bowl eligibility, while seven do not.

  • Steele's predicted order of finish in the Pac-12 North:
    1. Stanford
    2. Oregon
    3. Cal
    4. Washington State
    4. Washington
    6. Oregon State

    The Pac-12 South:
    1. USC
    2. UCLA
    3. ASU
    4. Utah
    4. Arizona
    6. Colorado

  • Steele's WSU position rankings in the Pac-12: QB 5, RB 12, WR 6, OL 8, DL 10, LB 9, DBs 12, ST 12.

  • In his write-up of Washington State, Steele says the o-line is the best Leach has fielded in four years in Pullman, QB Luke Falk (whom Steele projects to start) will flourish in the Air Raid, the wideout group is in better shape despite graduation losses and the running backs can only improve. On defense, Steele says the d-line rush defense "may slip some," the linebackers will be somewhat improved and DBs can only improve after very rough year. Using the same logic as the running backs and DBs, he says the special teams should also improve.

  • The projected Cougar o-line has 93 starts, placing them in a tie for 17th nationally and third-most in the Pac-12 (UCLA, USC).

  • Steele says WSU is among a group of 21 schools that “should have better success in ‘15” Later, Steele says based on 10 years of data comparing tougher/weaker schedules from one year to the next, WSU is among group of 21 teams that have a 79 percent chance of “better or same record” as 2014. (Granted, that's not exactly a revelation since WSU went 3-9 last year).

  • Of the incoming class, Steele sees only CB Treshon Broughton earning a starting spot.

  • He places fourth-year junior Gabe Marks in his top 40 WRs for the 2016 NFL draft, at No. 37.

  • Three WSU position groups make his national list: WR at No. 22, QB at No. 27 and OL at No. 45.

  • In his returning experience chart, Steele rates WSU as ninth in the Pac-12 and 86th nationally.

  • With respect to turnovers, WSU is listed as the No. 3 “going up” team. Steele says teams that were poor in generating turnovers one year usually improved their win total the following year. Steele says 66 percent of teams after a poor turnover ratio improved their W-L record the following year, while 21 percent compiled worse records. WSU was minus-17 in turnovers last year.

  • Steele gives WSU little chance to improve on their 2014 passing numbers when they led the nation, ranking them 125th out of 128 teams pegged for improvement. But he ranks the Cougs to be No. 1 in projected pass offense. Steele pegs WSU as dead last (128) to improve in rushing offense and No. 126 in projected pass defense improvement.

  • In his power poll, which Steele says combines his nine power rankings into one, WSU is ranked No. 65 out of 128 teams. (A recent blog entry of preseason magazines/sites has WSU as a consensus No. 64 [ESPN FPI, Lindy's, Athlon, CFN, Fremeau, Bill Connelly]).

  • Cougar wide receiver Dom Williams is listed as a “possible” Heisman contender, though Steele defines the category as being behind "favorites" and "contenders" -- someone Steele considers a quality player who could split votes with prime players.

  • Recruiting-wise, Steele says he does not scout prep or JC recruits but rather pulls together info from those who do. Three Cougars make his list of the top 75 JUCO recruits nationally: CB Treshon Broughton No. 41, LB Aaron Porter No. 58, S Shalom Luani No. 75. On the prep side, he has Tyler Hilinski rated as the No. 30 QB nationally, Thomas Toki the No. 46 DT and Kameron Powell as the No. 84 DB. He pegs WSU with the 44th freshman class nationally, ninth in the Pac-12.

  • The Pac-12 was the only conference in '14 with six teams posting nine or more wins.
  • He rates the Pac-12 as the toughest conference behind the SEC.
  • Steele’s No. 1 “surprise team” is Stanford, saying if they win the Pac-12 they can make the title game even with a loss.
  • Cal makes his top 15 list for most improved teams, at No. 12.
  • Steele picks USC to make the four-team playoff but to lose to TCU, and Alabama to lose to Ohio State. With Ohio State and TCU in the title game, he predicts Ohio State to repeat as national champion.

    To order a digital copy of Phil Steele's magazine, go to the iTunes store or Google Play. For a hard copy via mail, click to his website.

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