So before getting into my 2016 prognostications for the Cougars, I’m holding myself accountable for 2015. Although I picked the Cougs to go 7-5 in the regular-season — just one off their actual 8-4 mark — I arrived there in shaky fashion, missing on the wins over UCLA and Arizona and the losses at Cal and Washington, for example. So I’ll give myself a B- grade.
As for 2016, there’s a lot to like about the Cougars. So I will hedge my forecast a bit here by saying if they stay relatively healthy, it’s going to be one memorable campaign. If not, the parity in the Pac-12 could make .500 an achievement.
With health on the Cougars’ side, here’s how I see their season shaping up, week by week:
Week One: vs. EASTERN WASHINGTON. Win 38-17
While the Eagles — who traditionally play the Pac-12 tough — should hang around for a half or more, the Cougs surely won’t be caught sleeping like they were in the opener a year ago. The Eagles return star receiver Cooper Kupp and are ranked No. 9 in FCS preseason polls, but their o-line and QB are unproven, and the Cougs are simply bigger and faster. WSU will wear down EWU and Hercules Mata’afa will be setting up shop in the Eagles’ backfield.
Week Two at BOISE STATE. Win 45-35
The Cougs are 4-0 lifetime against the Broncs, but the clubs haven’t played since 2001 — the year before BSU started its big run as the nation’s most lovable underdog. This is one people throughout the region have looked forward to for a long time. And the fact Mark Rypien’s nephew — Spokane’s own Brett Rypien — is BSU’s talented QB adds to the intrigue. The Associated Press’ pre-season poll had the two teams one spot apart — the Cougs 29th, the Broncs 30th. Playing in front of what surely will be a fired up home crowd has to be worth six to BSU. Their high-tempo offense piled up more than 500 yards a game last season and the bevy of returning talent suggests more of the same in 2016. But the key to the game won’t be their offense. Boise State is VERY young in the secondary and on the defensive line. If that’s not a recipe for Luke Falk super-charging his Heisman stock I don’t know what is.
Week Three vs. IDAHO. Win 55-7
The Battle of the Palouse won’t be much of a battle. Hard to believe the Vandals used to be members of the Pac-12. True fact. Back when it was called the Pacific Coast Conference, Idaho was a proud member for many years. The Vandals, mercifully, are headed to the FCS and the Big Sky Conference in 2018. With just six wins in the last three years and one winning season in the last 16, their FBS journey has been a nightmare. The only pressing question in this game will be how many yards Tyler Hilinski throws for after subbing in for Luke Falk.
Week Four: Bye
Week Five vs. OREGON. Win 45-41
The Cougs pulled out a nail biter in Autzen last season and now — following a bye week — get the Ducks at home. If both teams come in undefeated will ESPN’s GameDay finally make the pilgrimage to Pullman? Star running back Royce Freeman leads what figures to be a potent Oregon offense but there are all kinds of questions on defense, especially among the linemen and linebackers. The Ducks are moving to a 4-3 scheme under d-coordinator Brady Hoke, who likes to blitz. If the Cougar o-line is coming together as quickly as fall camp reports indicate, Luke Falk will have time to dissect Duck linebackers with short passes. That, in my view, will be the difference in this one. Actually, that, and a fever-pitch crowd in Martin Stadium.
Week Six at STANFORD. Loss 27-17
After a 4-0 start, the Cougs come back to earth on The Farm in a battle of Heisman Trophy contenders: Luke Falk and Christian McCaffrey. Stanford’s offensive line, while not brimming with veteran experience, is still very large and very physical — and that will prove too much for the Cougs’ undersized d-line. The Card will pound the ball on the ground, keeping Falk & Co. off the field.
Week Seven vs. UCLA. Loss 35-27
No, two losses in a row won’t mean the sky is falling. It just means the Pac-12 has good football teams. And UCLA is one of them. The Bruins, who are widely favored to win the South, have a stout defense. They return nine starters on that side of the ball as well as uber-talented lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, who missed last year with injury. The offense carries question marks, but QB Josh Rosen is stellar (despite mediocre results when passing under pressure). The game is in Pullman, but I see that formidable Bruin D slowing the Air Raid enough for Rosen to pass by.
Week Eight at ARIZONA STATE. Win 24-17
How far the Devils have fallen. A year ago they were No. 15 in AP’s preseason poll and a popular pick to take the Pac-12. They wound up 6-7. Today, observers think their 2016 upside is 6-6. And for good reason — ASU will be rolling with an untested quarterback and an untested offensive line. But they have interesting talent spread across the roster so this is far from a gimme.
Week Nine at OREGON STATE. Win 52-16
Multi-dimensional offensive weapon Seth Collins is about the only interesting thing about the rebuilding Beavs. The defense, which has a new defensive coordinator and a ton of youth, will be no match for the Air Raid.
Week 10 vs. ARIZONA. Win 35-24
Other than a questionable defensive line, the Wildcats don’t appear to have significant holes and figure to be dangerous. This one’s in Pullman and the Cougs will be coming off what should be a non-taxing win over OSU, so look for Rich Rod’s upset bid to fall short as Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams carry the day for the Cougs.
Week 11 vs. CALIFORNIA. Win 38-28
Like ASU, the Bears were a preseason darling among the pundits last season and wound up underperforming (4-5 in the Pac-12) despite having the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft at QB. Jared Goff is gone and Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb is the new man behind center. Barring a major stumble by Webb, the offense figures to remain highly productive. Defense, though, will be the Bears’ undoing.
Week 12 at COLORADO. Win 42-24
The Buffs won only four games last season, but four of their Pac-12 losses were by seven points or less. Translation: Colorado is on the upswing. And it doesn’t hurt to have a veteran senior — Tacoma’s Sefo Liufau — at quarterback, along with experience in the offensive line and on defense. The Buffs are expected to debut an Oregon-esque high-tempo offense this season and can in no way be taken lightly. It’s hard to see how they can keep up with the Air Raid, but if I had to pick an upset special, this game — in Boulder — would be it.
Week 13 vs. WASHINGTON. Win 20-17
A 12:30 p.m. kickoff in Pullman the day after Thanksgiving? Does anyone realize that 80 percent of WSU’s season ticket holders travel 50 miles or more for home games? But I digress. Yes, Budda Baker and the Husky D are formidable. And yes, Jake Browning is a fine young QB. But let’s face facts: the Huskies will be reeling — as usual — from not living up to pre-season hype, the game is in Pullman, and Luke Falk will be hellbent on showing Budda and the boys what they missed last time around. Erik Powell’s left leg will be the margin of difference.
FINAL REGULAR-SEASON RECORD: 10-2. Remember you read it here first.