I LOVE THE smell of success in the morning. Especially at the dawn of a new year. Forget the 10-2 record and No. 10 national ranking attained by the 2001 Cougars. I'm thinking about 2002. And so are a lot of other people around the nation.

The expectations for Mike Price's 2002 Palouse Pumas are building at a fever pitch with national media types jumping on early to the crimson bandwagon. In the last week alone, The Sporting News installed Cougar quarterback Jason Gesser as one of the early front runners for the 2002 Heisman Trophy. His offense is built for numbers, TSN noted.

Moreover, TSN tabs Florida State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas as the 2002 favorites for the national title but says "a surprise squad or two" could emerge. And guess what? Washington State is among those on the list of possible interlopers.

CBS Sportsline is already out with its 2002 pre-season Top 25. They rank the Cougars at No. 11. Sportsline also opines that the Pac-10 championship could come down to Nov. 23 when the Cougars and Huskies battle for the Apple Cup in Pullman.

And let's not forget Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN. Back in November, off the top of his, he rattled off WSU as one of the teams with the talent to make a Top 5 finish in '02.

As long as Gesser and Reggie Williams don't end up together on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August -- a la Joey Harrington and Ken Simonton -- I'll gladly relish all this attention. After the drought following the 1997 championship season I figure we Cougar faithful have a little catching up to do.

Still, I have to admit that my Catholic upbringing weighs heavy on my mind. That old Evil Eye is always lurking over the shoulder. You know how it is --- just when you think all might be well, something or someone divine could rise up and smite thee. So it's never OK to feel too good about things. As such, I refuse to get overly excited. In fact, I can't seem to get visions of the 2001 Oregon State Beavers out of my head.

Could the Cougars become the 2002 version of '01 OSU?

The Pac-10 has become Parityville in recent years so no game or lead is ever safe. Traveling early to Columbus for an intersectional showdown with always-tough Ohio State certainly will be a test for the Cougs.

And you never know what can happen on the injury and academic front. If Gesser is hobbled for any stretch, I could see WSU's 13-game regular season easily limping in at 6-7.

On the other hand, if the Hurlin' Hawaiian's health stays intact and a couple of young hands at linebacker and safety step up even moderately, then I don't see any way the 2002 Cougars will mirror OSU of 2001. With a bounce or two, I see 10 wins or maybe more.


For one simple reason: The Cougars have seasoned steak eaters on both sides of the ball. The defensive line is loaded and so is the offensive line. And by loaded, I mean in experience and depth. When guys like DT Jeremey Williams and OL Phil Locker appear slotted for back up roles you know there's some serious paint-swappin' going on down low.

In contrast, the one glaring weakness in Corvallis this past season was in the trenches. There wasn't much experience or depth. Sports Illustrated didn't jinx the Beavs. The hosses did.

It's amazing what you can accomplish if you're loaded up front. It can make up for all kinds of break downs elsewhere on the field. And the Cougar Hoss Patrol in 2002 shapes up as impressively on both sides of the ball as any I've seen over the last 30 years. And yes, on defense, that includes the incredible 1994 Palouse Posse line of DeWayne Patterson, Don Sasa, Chad Eaton and Dwayne Sanders. And yes, on offense, that includes the 1988 bunch that included Mike Utley, John Husby, Paul Wulff and Chris Dyko.

On top of all this talent is another huge factor weighing in on the positive side of the equation: Coaching. DL coach Mike Walker and OL coach Bob Connelly are two very impressive young guys who instill a unique blend of technique, grit and confidence in their kids.


* The Sporting News ranks Cougar outside linebacker Raonall Smith and defensive back Lamont Thompson among the top 12 prospects at their positions in the NFL's upcoming draft.

* I can't tell you how nice it is to see that former WSU QB coach Bill Diedrick is heading to Notre Dame with Ty Willingham to become offensive coordinator. It's proof that nice guys don't finish last. And believe me, Bill is as quality a guy as you'd ever want to know. After the way Jim Lambright used him as a scapegoat at the UW, it's only fitting that fate give him a plum of an opportunity.

* And speaking of opportunities, a bunch of Cougar seniors will have a chance to strut their stuff during the college all-star games. Nakoa McElrath, Billy Newman, and Lamont Thompson will play for the West this weekend in the 77th East-West Shrine in San Francisco. They continue a Cougar tradition in the game that dates to the mid-1920s when Cougar guard Fred Kramer and quarterback Butch Meeker suited up for the West in the first two Shrine Games ever played. Also this weekend, the inaugural Paradise Bowl takes place with senior stars from the Mountain West, Pac-10, Big Sky, and WAC conferences. Five Cougars will be in that one: TE Jeremy Thielbahr, OL Joey Hollenbeck, DE Tupo Tuupo, OLB James Price, and punter Alan Cox.

* In case you missed it, the Cougars cracked two Top 10 lists in the final rankings of 2001. They were voted No. 9 by The Sporting News and No. 10 by the Associated Press. The ESPN/USA Today poll had them at No. 11.

* One obstacle in the way of Jason Gesser's Heisman Trophy candidacy is the fact he plays on the West Coast while other frontruners Rex Grossman of Florida and Ken Dorsey of Miami play in front of East Coast TV audiences every Saturday. That figures to make WSU's Week 3 trip to Ohio State a make or break opportunity for Jason.

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