Pre-season predictions, pundits and poinsettias

AS A DECADES-LONG reader of Street & Smith's and all the other pre-season football magazines, I never cease to be struck by all the stuff I learn from them. Last week, for instance, was my discovery that Holiday Bowl honchos are launching a second post-season classic in San Diego. They're calling it the Poinsettia Bowl. And magazine pundit Phil Steele predicts that the inaugural contest will feature your Fighting Cougars against the Aztecs of San Diego State.

While any bowl game in San Diego figures to be a winner, did organizers really think one named after a potted plant would get pulses racing?

Granted, it sounds better than the Poulan Weed Eater, but for pure sex appeal it ranks down with the dearly departed classic.

Whether the Cougars do in fact do the Poinsettia on Dec. 22, consensus among the pre-season mags is that Ol' Wazzu will resume its bowl-going ways in 2005.

Seeing as all of the publications are forecasting the Cougars to finish No. 6 or No. 7 in the Pac-10, they're obviously not thinking Rose, Holiday or Sun. But on the strength of a schedule that includes five opponents who won a collective 12 Division I-A games last season, the Emerald, Las Vegas and Insight bowls are deemed well within reach.

By the way, of those 12 D-I victories the Fearsome Five racked up in 2004, three came at the expense of lowly San Jose State and another five against the likes of Eastern Michigan, Louisiana-Lafayette, Rice, Arkansas State and something called Buffalo.

Opponent quality aside, it doesn't hurt that the 2005 Cougars will be led by one of the nation's most feared linebackers and that two experienced QBs with a bevy of receiving talent return on offense.

Steele, the master of arcane statistical analysis, offers up a compelling case for a WSU rebound: The Cougars return 15 starters. That's a critical number, he notes, when viewed in historic context. In the Price-Doba era the Cougars have gone to the post-season every season in which they returned 13 starters or more. Every year they didn't, like last season, the number was below 13.

IN ADDITION TO wunderkind LB Will Derting, whom The Sporting News sees being the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year, three other Cougars are widely picked by the pre-season magazines for post-season honors of some kind: receiver Jason Hill, punter Kyle Basler and return man Michael Bumpus.

Other Cougars getting a nod by one or two of the mags are defensive ends Mkristo Bruce and Adam Braidwood, running back Jerome Harrison, linebacker Scott Davis and center Nick Mihlhauser. Another guy who could be there at season's end is Troy Bienemann --- one of six Pac-10 tight ends considered among the top 30 at that position in the nation.

Lindy's tabbed Josh Swogger as the strongest arm in the Pac-10, and Street & Smith's picks Derting as the hardest hitter.

The Sporting News and Lindy's pick the Oct. 15 WSU-UCLA game --- Homecoming in Pullman --- as one of the Pac-10's most important. Why?

Because there's a very real chance the Cougars will enter that contest at 5-0, while the Bruins, pegged to be a top 25 team, will be traveling outside California for the first time all season --- to a place where they haven't won since way back in 1993.

THE PAPER-THIN state of the Cougars' safety corps is quite evident in the fact no two of the publications agree on who will be backing up Husain Abdullah and Eric Frampton. Three guys who've yet to don a crimson jersey are most prominently mentioned: incoming freshmen Xavier Hicks and Michael Willis and JC transfer DeWayne Patterson. Also in the mix will be sophomores Christian Bass and Jeff Muai.


For Pac-10 fans, two pre-season mags standout: Lindy's and Athlon. However, make sure you pick up the versions that prominently tell you they're Pac-10 centric. Otherwise, if you grab their standard books, you'll end up with a fraction of the info. In the Pac-10 versions you get three pages of material on each team plus great color photography. Athlon also offers up a pithy point-counterpoint feature with Cougar partisan Jim Moore battling's Dave Samek.

While in my second tier, Phil Steele's College Football Preview is always interesting because he writes for people who like to wager on games. He does a solid enough job sizing up each team, but complements it with about every imaginable statistical breakdown possible -- record at home over the last five years when favored; record on the road on artificial turf; first quarter field goals in October when Bob Robertson has a sore throat, etc., etc.


* WSU fared well in Steele's assessment of Pac-10 coaches. With Norm Chow's move to the NFL, Steele picks Mike Levenseller as the conference's best offensive coordinator. On defense, honors go to 1980s Cougar defensive back Bob Gregory, now the defensive coordinator at Cal.

* The Cougars are 35-14 overall and 22-10 in conference play over the last four years --- a record surpassed only by USC.

* WSU has won eight of its last nine games played in the state of California.

* If you thought Mike Price worked miracles at UTEP last season, he may be in line for canonization if he meets expectations this time around. Most are predicting a top 25 season for the Miners and a league title in their inaugural campaign in Conference USA. There are several former Pac-10 players on the Miners' roster, including backup quarterback Chris Hurd, the old Cougar, and starting back Tyler Ebell, the one-time UCLA Bruin.

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