Posted on July 6, 2020
The 2020 college football season isn’t yet a certainty, but we continue our Pac-12 football previews with the Washington State Cougars. The weekly series culminates in Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
General Outlook: Wildcard Cougars could Surprise in the North
Overview: Washington State Athletic Director Pat Chun wasted no time hiring former Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich after the departure of Mike Leach to Mississippi State. The change was welcomed by most, but the disappointment of losing Leach was palpable.
Leach raised expectations at WSU in his eight years in Pullman, leading the program to five-straight bowl games while returning the Cougars to national relevancy. Big shoes to fill, no doubt.
With spring ball canceled and summer workouts modified, Rolovich must hit the ground running to implement his “Run and Shoot” offensive scheme by Week One. Fortunately, the system shares many characteristics with Leach’s Air-Raid.
If things go right, running back Max Borghi should thrive under the slightly more balanced play-calling and greater emphasis on the run. Though inexperience at the quarterback position is worrisome, WSU’s talented offensive line should help negate any struggles under center.
Perhaps most importantly, former Wyoming Defensive Coordinator Jake Dickert was brought in to revamp a defense that allowed 31.4 points per game in 2019. Improvement on that side of the ball is vital to Washington State’s re-emergence as a title contender in the vaunted North Division.
Best-Case Scenario: The Cougars emerge as a surprise challenger in the North, upsetting California early in the year and stunning Washington in the Apple Cup.
Projected starting quarterback Cammon Cooper thrives in the Run-and-Shoot while Borghi rips apart opposing defenses week-in and week-out. The Cougar defense forces more three-and-outs, due in part to linebacker Jahad Woods adjusting to Dickert’s 4-2-5 scheme with ease. Both Rolovich and Dickert successfully bridge their Mountain West systems to the Conference of Champions.
Off the field, recruiting momentum eclipses the height of the Leach Era. Recruits buy into Rolovich’s pitch and believe in Dickert’s management of the defense.
The first season of the new era ends with a respectable bowl game and the staff engineers a resurgence a year or two ahead of schedule. A storm begins to brew on the Palouse.
Worst-Case Scenario: The lack of spring ball and limited summer practice is apparent early in the season as the team struggles to adjust to the new schemes on offense and defense. Disaster strikes on the road in Week One against Utah State, and Houston steals a win at Martin Stadium a week later.
Things begin to turn around with victories over Idaho and Oregon State, but a string of conference losses follow.
Never able to recover, the program enters the Apple Cup with just four wins and the legacy of Rolovich’s first season hanging in the balance.
What Should Happen: The talented offensive line led by Liam Ryan and Abraham Lucas should pilot the Cougars to a bowl game. Cooper should be given plenty of time to operate effectively and put up points. If Cooper is unable to get it done, Gunner Cruz or incoming freshman Jayden de Laura, who ran the Run-and-Shoot in high school, should step in to run the system efficiently.
Whoever wins the job will have plenty of returning options at wide receiver: Renard Bell, Travell Harris, and Davontaveon Martin combined for 15 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards receiving in 2019. Moreover, Borghi chipped in 5 touchdowns and nearly 600 yards receiving last season. As a whole, the weapons are there for a potent passing game.
As for the run aspect of the Run-and-Shoot, the line’s power should allow Borghi to carve up opposing defenses. Washington State’s foes could be overly concerned with stopping the potent passing attack, allowing the junior to emerge as one of the Pac-12’s best. If things go well, Borghi could eclipse 1,000 yards rushing, 2,000 all-purpose yards, and contend for the Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
On defense, Dickert’s unit should show week-to-week improvement and bring its average points allowed per game under 30. Along with Woods, linebackers Dillon Sherman and Justus Rogers project to adapt to the new system with ease and emerge as the leaders on defense. Linemen Dallas Hobbs and Will Rogers III figure to play an important part in the defense’s revival as well.
What Must Happen: After a defeat in the Cheez-It Bowl and a losing season for the first time since 2014, the defense must show improvement. Dickert has several returning staters that he needs to play well, including an experienced linebacker unit. At Wyoming, he established one of the best defenses in the Mountain West using a 4-2-5 formation. That system must be smoothly implemented in Pullman, especially early in the season with tests against Utah State and Houston.
Any signs of improvement will be squandered, though, if the quarterback situation turns south. Cooper, Cruz, and de Laura have yet to take a snap in a Cougar uniform, and their development in Rolovich’s system remains to be seen. The Run-and-Shoot provides plenty of options for the gunslinger, similar to the Air-Raid, and it’s just a matter of executing the correct decision. It may be wise to rotate the quarterbacks early in the year to get a feel for which one is most adept at running the scheme.
Regardless, Borghi must be heavily featured. The 5-foot-10 bruiser has the potential to be the best running back in the Pac-12. His diverse tool kit allows him to not only run effectively, but catch the ball out of the backfield with consistency. The transition to Rolovich’s system should be easy for him.
Greatest Strength: A Talented Offensive Line and Borghi’s Versatility
The Wazzu offensive line and Borghi constitute one of the best running back-offensive line combinations in the Pac-12.
The experience and talent up front, along with the dangerous running threat, should make the starting quarterback’s job easier. Opponents will be forced to pick their poison.
It will be up to the quarterback to make the secondaries and linebackers pay when they sell-out to slow down the rush. Either way, the line figures to provide enough time to pass and open lanes to run. The result should be plenty of points.
Biggest Concern: Inexperience at Quarterback and a New Defense
Rolovich’s spring and summer has been preoccupied with questions about his quarterback and defense. Under center, the lack of experience is the glaring problem. Fortunately, he has three options to make it work. One of them should play well enough to to get it done.
The defense, however, is a more complex issue. During WSU’s 11-win season in 2018, the defense was one of the best in the conference. Recruiting is the primary way to return to that level, but the implementation of a new system could jumpstart the process. Rolovich is familiar with Dickert’s capabilities, having coached against him numerous times while at Hawaii, and will rely on his judgment.
Deciding Factors: Adaptable Offensive Scheme and an Effective Passing Attack
Issues at quarterback and on defense could be masked by a strong running game.
Borghi has established himself as an elite player with a plug-and-play reputation. Within Rolovich’s system, the run threat is pivotal to optimizing the passing attack. Any struggles establishing a run game could hinder the offense’s ability to score. However, the more balanced-play calling is arguably a perfect fit for Borghi, and one that should increase his productivity.
When it comes down to it, Borghi’s continued success is vital to WSU’s season. If he performs as expected, the Cougars should win enough games to make a bowl.
Schedule Analysis: Key Nonconference and Conference Games
The Cougars face a test right out of the gate with a road game against Utah State. The following week features a rematch of last year’s matchup with Houston, but this time in the friendly confines of Martin Stadium. Breaking in a new system and quarterback against the Mountain West and AAC programs is no easy task.
Neither game should be taken lightly.
Idaho comes to Pullman to finish out the non-conference season, and Conference play features winnable games against Oregon State, Stanford, Colorado, and UCLA. The toss-up matches are California, Utah, and Arizona State, while the battle with Oregon projects to be the toughest game of the year.
The Apple Cup may be the wildcard, with both programs hiring new coaches and breaking in new quarterbacks.
Assuming Washington State wins the games it’s expected to win, six victories is the floor, and a nine-win campaign the ceiling.
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