Seen & Heard 5/21

AS THE 2002 grid season inches closer, the Cougar faithful, still aglow with last season's 10-2 record, are growing downright giddy in the fact Heisman contender <b>Jason Gesser</b> returns for a fifth crimson season with a handsome collection of hosses and wideouts around him. So it was actually refreshing last week to see some sobering water doused on the Cougar pre-season fire.

Dennis Dodd, the columnist for CBS Sportsline, put forth his pre-season Top 25 list and buried the Cougars at No. 18 --- eight spots lower than where they concluded the 2001 campaign and 12 places below the highest pre-season ranking I've seen for them so far.

Indeed, Dodd's analysis was a mighty counterbalance to the crimson outlook floated on May 12 by John Adams, sports editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "If you're looking for a dark horse in the national championship race," he wrote, "consider Washington State, which returns many of the key players from a 10-2 team that finished No. 10 last season."

Dodd actually concedes the legitimacy of such lofty speculation, but keeps himself grounded in tradition.

"Based on talent," he writes, "the Cougs probably deserve to be ranked higher, but it's hard to ignore the school's history, which says they almost never follow a good season (like last year's 10-2 mark) with another one just like it. For now, we'll split the difference. The development of JC transfer running back Jermaine Green will be key."

Not lost on him in his "highest hurdles" category is the fact the Cougars must face five teams who are considered serious contenders for a conference title: Ohio State, USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA.

Getting through that buzz saw, plus the Arizona schools, will be no waltz through the Big Sky Conference. Just ask Mark Rypien, Rueben Mayes and Kerry Porter. WSU's fabled RPM backfield, which generated a mountain of pre-season hype in 1985, had a virtually identical schedule to this season's, replete with Ohio State and Montana State. But they fell hard on the shoals of the Pac-10's unremitting parity, losing nail-biters to Oregon and UCLA while downing only Cal, Oregon State and Washington.

THE 2002 Buckeyes, whom the Cougars play in Week 3 at Columbus, are a most intriguing opponent -- ostensibly because a win there would put the Cougars smack in the middle of the BCS race and, more important, likely serve as a booster rocket for Gesser's Heisman campaign.

Ohio State is coming off a 7-5 season and returns a boat load of talent at the skill positions, a great defensive line and a pair of stud safeties.

But while a win there would truly set the Cougar ship sailing, facts are still the facts the rest of the way: On any given Saturday, just about anybody in the Pac-10 -- except perhaps Cal -- can beat anybody else. And the fact Stanford now has former Florida assistant Buddy Teevens running the show -- with experienced Chris Lewis at QB --- scares the hell out of me. Especially so because when the Cougars face them, on the road in Week 7, those Cardinal brainiacs, no strangers to the passing game to begin with, will most certainly have mastered the Spurrior system.

So for now, at least, I say let's channel our collective enthusiasm into buying tickets and making donations to the indoor practice facility. Sure, all the pre-season attention is nice, but what counts in the end is touchdowns and a stadium full of people.

AND SPEAKING OF stadiums, it appears certain the Cougars will pull out of their Nov. 30 game at Hawaii this season. With the UCLA game moved to Dec. 7, the wear and tear of a trip to the islands just doesn't make sense. Besides, the Cougars are in the unusual position of playing 13 regular season games -- two more than normal. Dropping one needs to be done, though it would have been nice for Gesser to have a farewell stop in his hometown.

Official word on the game change will wait until WSU finds a replacement. Word out of Honolulu is that a high-profile program is on the cusp. Because WSU is considered a Bowl Championship Series contender and features a Heisman Trophy hopeful from Hawaii, the only acceptable replacement must be a BCS-caliber team, according to Hawaii officals. Presuming the switch happens, WSU is expected to return to the islands in 2003 and/or in 2007.

DID YOU SEE where the NCAA has added three more bowl games to the post-season line up, including one in Hawaii? That means 56 schools out of the 112 playing in Division I-A will be bowling this season. That's what I call product dilution.

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