Analyzing WSU’s football schedule, Part I: The nonconference slate

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM this football season is that Washington State’s Pac-12 title hopes rest on a three-game stretch in Weeks 4-6 (Oregon, Stanford, UCLA). But the Cougars' nonconference schedule holds plenty of intrigue all its own.

Week 1: Eastern Washington
Returning starters: 14 (5 offense, 9 defense)
EWU hasn't settled on a starting QB yet, with third-year sophomore Gage Gubrud threatening to beat out senior Jordan West.  The starting o-line is the biggest story -- Eastern is replacing all five starters and its top two backups from last season's 6-5 squad. Still, the unit showed promise this spring. The wide receivers, meanwhile, are projected to be among the best in the FCS. The defense looks capable, with a mixture of experience and youth - the group played quicker and with more familiarity this spring after a year's worth of play in the 4-2-5 base introduced in '15. Eastern has knocked off Oregon State and played UW, WSU and Oregon closer than expected in recent years.  But WSU won't forget last year's stunning loss to FCS Portland State in its preparations for this season's opener.

Week 2: at Boise State
Returning starters: 15 (9 offense, 6 defense)
BSU is looking to make it two in a row over Pac-12 schools after beating UW last season. They'll have to do it with different faces on the coaching staff - both the offensive and defensive coordinators are new. QB Brett Rypien was solid as a true freshman last year and senior-to-be wideout Thomas Sperbeck was his favorite target (88 rec., 1,412 yards, 8 TDs). RB Jeremy McNichols was a TD machine last season (26). After those three, however, there are mostly unproven playmakers. The defensive line is the big question: BSU is replacing all four starters plus three other contributors. Elsewhere on defense, BSU's depth took a hit last week. On paper, WSU-BSU figures to be a shootout on the scoreboard, something that should most benefit WSU.  But the game is at Boise, where the Broncos rarely lose.  Both Boise State and WSU figure to come into this game either ranked or just outside the top 25 in the polls.

Week 3: Idaho
Returning starters: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Long-dormant Idaho, headed to the FCS in 2018, might be ready to make some teams blink this season. Idaho improved to 4-8 in '15 and head coach Paul Petrino thinks the Vandals can make it to a bowl game in '16. Idaho brings back its QB in junior-to-be Mark Linehan, most of its starting o-line and key receivers and tight end targets.  Idaho can throw it - they ranked No. 27 nationally last season in passing offense.  Defensively, Idaho looks to have significant problems -- it didn't do anything well on defense last season, and ranked near the bottom nationally in scoring and total defense last season. Washington State has too many weapons on both sides of the ball but an underwhelming win is certainly possible if the Cougs think they can just show up. There will be no game in college football in Week 3 with a more eagerly awaited postgame handshake than this one.

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