Seen & Heard 8/2

PAC-10 BEAT writers have picked WSU to finish tops in the conference for the first time in 41 years. And College Football News is out with a prediction of 11-1 for the 2002 Crimson Soldiers. I love the attention, but facts are facts: Given the parity of the Pac-10, the Cougars are just a couple of bad bounces and an injury or two away from yearning for a Humanitarian Bowl invite.

Winning the Pac-10 anymore is as much luck as talent because the competition, week in and week out, is so solid. Just look at Oregon last year. If the ref hadn't blown the non-call for pass intereference on Jason Gesser's endzone pass to Mike Bush in the waning seconds, the Ducks' season in the sun would have been sunk.

And look at Washington the year before. You can count at least a half-dozen big breaks -- even flukes -- that went the Huskies' way, allowing them to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. If just one of those bounces or calls goes the other way, the joy ride is done.

Now come the Cougars in 2002. They've got experience, depth and talent. But what happens if the injuries start to mount? What happens if the bounce like the one that ended up in Mark Fields' lap at Illinois in 1994 goes the other way?

The Cougars have very little depth at linebacker and defensive back. The offensive line is seemingly well stocked, but the two-deep chart shows that the back ups at center, right guard and right tackle are all completely untested. Which of course gives rise to a talk about potential holes in pass protection. Whcih of course gives rise to the unthinkable: Heisman Trophy candidate Gesser going down.

Gesser's got the mentality of a linebacker and the size of a utility infielder --- a combination that all of us well know from Jason's past doesn't mix especially well. In fact. I'm still wincing at the hit he took from UCLA's Robert Thomas last season.

Moreover, there's always the threat of a freakish injury when it comes to a position that truly is in harm's way on every single snap. Consider that Mike Price would have two more bowl games under his belt right now were it not for two such bad breaks. In 1989, Brad Gossen, one of the nation's top passers at the time, broke his thumb against Oregon State when his follow through on a pass put his hand on a collision course with a lineman's helmet. In 1993, Mike Pattinson had the Cougs flying high and then he landed awkwardly on a not particularly impressive sack and separated his shoulder.

Okay, now that I've got you sufficiently worried about staying healthy, let's just consider the Cougars schedule. The Cougars 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 cake walk. Just ask Mark Rypien, Kerry Porter and Rueben Mayes. 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.

By the way, that 1985 Cougar team was, until this week, the highest finisher in school history in the Pac-10 beat writers' pre-season forecast. They were tabbed for fourth, and came in eighth.

Alas, just about anybody in the Pac-10 can beat anybody else. And the fact Stanford now has former Florida assistant Buddy Teevens running the show -- with experienced Chris Lewis at QB --- is a scary proposition.

So what's my point with all this? Attend every game you can and cheer your brains out, but don't cry in your beer if everything doesn't shake out the way so many pundits think they will. This is the Pac-10. On any given Saturday, cow dung happens. Let's just hope most of it happens in our favor.

NOTABLE NOTES:

WORD FROM PULLMAN is that athletic director Jim Sterk is hellbent on getting 60,000 Cougar fans into Seahawks Stadium for the season opener against Chris Tormey's fightin' Wolfpack of Nevada on Oct. 31. So far, 41,000 seats are filled. The Stadium holds 68,000, so lots of great seats remain -- just call 1-800-GO-COUGS to get yours. Sterk is planning an aggressive ad blitz in Seattle over the coming weeks. Those efforts, coupled with the standard game-day walk-ups, make 60,000 a very realistic -- and highly impressive -- goal.

AT LEAST TWO Cougar games -- at Ohio State on Sept. 14 and at UCLA on Dec. 7 -- will be televised by ABC. Apparently, the USC and Oregon games also are being considered by ABC. Shockingly, Fox Sports Net and TBS have yet to choose the Cougars for any games, but rumor has it that the Arizona game Oct. 26 and the Apple Cup on Nov. 23 are virtually certain to be televised live.

THE SWEEPSTAKES to replace Dave Minnich at running back appears right on track, with news that Jermaine Green's knee tweak over the summer is completely healed and first-team JC All-American Jonathon Smith is academically sound and already in Pullman. Those two, along with returning senior John Tippins, figure to get most of the reps when practices begin Tuesday. JC transfer Lionel Arnold has a knee injury and will redshirt this season, according to The Spokesman-Review. No word on the academic status of another touted JC back, Chris Bruhn.


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