To Bowl or not to Bowl?

WHILE GUAGING expectations for the 2004 edition of Washington State football, I've noted — near as I can deduce — the Cougs have the fewest returning starters of any NCAA Division 1-A team. With so many questions to answer, WSU may be the biggest X-factor in all of college football. But who cares, we heard the naysayers prior to the Cougs' three consecutive 10-win seasons and we've got <b>Will Derting</b>, right?

Well, whether you wear crimson blinders or are bracing yourself for a come down in 2004, it appears that you've got a lot of evidence to support either case.

THE OPTIMISTS' CASE:

1. A proven coaching staff and system are in place at WSU. In college football this is half the battle.

-Arizona, UW, and UCLA have continued to suffer massive personnel turnover.

-ASU, Stanford and Oregon State are struggling with what direction they want to go offensively and defensively.

-For most of the spring, Colorado wasn't even certain who their coach was going to be for next season.

-The fact that WSU's staff has remained loyal and the players understand and believe in the system is a tremendous advantage.

2. While the Cougs have very few returning starters, they are actually more experienced than one might think.

-WSU has 10 seniors pegged to be starters next season (five on offense, five on defense). That is a pretty solid number of veterans, ranking No. 3 in the conference by my calculations.

-Combined with point No. 1, this would suggest that WSU players will have a very short learning curve. They know what they need to do and have had great players showing them the ropes.

-Consider the recent transitions from Jason Gesser to Matt Kegel, Jerome Riley/Mike Bush to Scott Lunde/Sammy Moore, Tyler Hunt to Mike Shelford, or Lamont Thompson to Erik Coleman. Was there really that much—or any—of a drop-off? Seniors passing the torch to seniors amidst success is usually a very good sign.

3. The schedule is pretty darn good.

-The Cougs open up the season with four very winnable games (New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and Arizona), which gives the team time to get their act together.

-WSU then gets a well-timed bye week before hosting Oregon as they enter the thick of Pac-10 play.

-Most of WSU's toughest Pac-10 games come at home (UW, USC, Oregon, and Stanford) so the Cougs could steal a game that they might otherwise lose.

-Weather should be very generous to the Cougs. They play road games in Tempe and Pasadena in November and host USC and UW in cold weather.

-All of Wazzu's opponents are repeats of last year's slate. As a result, the inexperienced players should already have plenty of familiarity and videotape to work with in the off-season.

-The Cougs face Arizona State and UCLA in late November. Both teams have a history of struggling late in the season. Since 2000 UCLA and ASU are a combined 6-22 in November games and more recently have lost nine of their last 10. If they fail to live up to expectations early in the season, they may again be emotionally flat by the time WSU faces them.

4. The Cougs have an unprecedented infusion of talent entering the pipeline.

-Potentially weak positions have timely JC transfers entering the mix. Cornerbacks Tyron Brackenridge and Wally Dada, receivers Greg Prator and Tramaine Murray, running back Jerome Harrison, and defensive end Letrell Myers could bring some very pleasant surprises to the depth charts.

-Redshirt freshman from the 2003 class, who were already making names for themselves on the practice squad, have continued to made headlines in spring ball. QB Alex Brink, guard Bobby Byrd, DE Reyshawn Bobo, WR Scott Selby, and defensive tackles Aaron Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua are all battling for starting slots that were thought to be wrapped up. This will add to the Cougar depth and should push every player to work harder in the off-season.

-The freshmen (hopefully) coming to campus in the fall are so highly rated, the coaches expect many to receive immediate playing time. Safeties Randy Estes and Michael Willis, running backs J.T. Diederichs and Ian Bell, defensive end Jason Roberts, and wide receiver Michael Bumpus all have the potential for immediate impact.

5. The NFL Draft continues to Hallmark WSU's ability to get the most out its talent.

-Three straight 10-win teams have yielded just seven players drafted, suggesting that the Cougs don't succeed on mega-talent alone and that the talent we have isn't irreplaceable.

-It also suggests that Cougar players excel more as a result of good coaching in a good system, than on raw athletic ability.

THE CASE FOR THE PESSIMISTS:

1. No team in college football lost more talent than WSU did this off-season.

-On sheer numbers alone, the losses in personnel are staggering. 25 lettermen-- including 17 starting players-- are gone. Nobody simply reloads that much talent.

-The last time WSU lost this many starters was before the 1998 season and they didn't recover for another two years.

2. Worse than the quantity of players lost is the quality.

-11 multi-year starters, 15 All-Pac-10 Honorees, four National Award Semi-Finalists, and the school's all-time leading scorer are gone.

-Offensively those numbers account for the team's leading passer, rusher, top three receivers, and top seven scorers. In a complex offense, that kind of loss of experience will leave glaring weaknesses.

-Defensively, eight of the top 10 tacklers are gone as well as the schools No. 2 and 3 all-time leaders in sacks, and the No. 2 and 4 career leaders in interceptions. As good as the incoming talent is, the players they are replacing were truly extraordinary.

3. The schedule offers opportunity but gives no room for mistakes.

-Almost all of WSU's "must win" games are on the road. In the battle between the apparent middle-of-the-road Pac-10 teams, WSU will be at a disadvantage.

-In many ways the schedule resembles the 2000 season. There appear to be some brutal games at home, with the easier games being played in tough venues. The Cougs will have no gimmies with the possible exception of Idaho, who actually snuck up and beat the Cougs in 1999 and 2000.

-Just as the Cougs have plenty of tapes on our opponents, so do they have plenty of tape on WSU. The Cougs have had bullseyes on their chests for several years now, and teams know to have their A-games ready when they face WSU.

4. WSU's entire offense hinges on great Quarterback play.

-While there have been exceptions, history suggests that WSU doesn't win with average quarterbacks at the helm. The Steve Birnbaums and Chad DeGreniers of the world, bless their hearts, haven't been good enough to bring bowl games to WSU. Given the complete rebuild on the defensive side of the ball, WSU needs a quarterback who can create opportunities on his own.

-While Josh Swogger has shown plenty of physical potential, his numbers last year were not too impressive. He threw five interceptions and just one touchdown. He completed just 50 percent of his passes while averaging a relatively conservative 6.7 yards per attempt. As Swogger is in his third year in the program, can fans expect much further improvement beyond what he shows early next season?

-Swogger also has a very limited array of proven weapons at his disposal. WSU is very thin at receiver and the players available have been hampered with injuries.

5. While the underlying players were great, WSU won most of it's games as a result of turnovers; an unpredictable aspect of the game.

-History suggests there is no renewable formula for constantly creating turnovers; sometimes you get them some times you don't (case in point, Notre Dame 2002 vs. Notre Dame 2003). Losing the No. 2 and 3 all-time greatest pass rushers and No. 2 and No. 4 all-time leading interceptors certainly won't help WSU's cause in this department.

ONE OTHER POINT should be made in this Cougar Optimist versus Cougar Pessimist showdown: Though saddled with the preseason tag of "unrealistic," the Optimists have posted one-sided victories over the Pessimists the past three seasons.

Cougfan Top Stories