Pac-12 North Preview: Washington State

Sleeping. Like WSU, most of the time.The Year That Was

Two years ago, Washington State was arguably the worst team in the entire country. The Cougars’ lost 11 games by an average of 29 points. They only defeated Southern Methodist — an overtime victory that saw the latter blow a 17-point lead in the second half. Every Pac-10 team except ASU crushed WSU by at least three touchdowns; the Sun Devils won by 17 points.

Last season, then, was progress. Yes, Washington State still got blown out plenty of times, but hope sparked here and there. Jeff Tuel developed into a dependable quarterback as a sophomore starter, and the Cougars passing offense went from 10th to sixth in the Pac-10. Freshman receiver Marquess Wilson amassed more yards than anyone in the conference except Arizona’s Juron Criner. An effective deep threat, Wilson topped the field at 18.29 yards per reception.

On Oct. 23, the Cougars managed a 38-28 road loss to eventual Orange Bowl champion Stanford, a moral victory if there ever was one. On Nov. 6, they lost to a visiting Cal team, 20-13. And a week after that, they stunned Oregon State with a 31-14 win in Corvallis.

Key Departures and Returnees

No real losses. This is a team that has won only five games over the past three years, and no more than two in any one season. WSU was the only team that didn’t produce a single All-Pac-10 first or second team selection. They did have eight honorable mentions and all but two seniors return. The biggest names there are Tuel and Wilson.

Player to Watch

Keep your eyes on Tuel. Coach Paul Wulff expects his O-line to be much more physical, and the Palouse could be in for some shootouts. Given the the Cougar’s sieve of a defense — easily last in the Pac-10 in 2010 — Tuel must shine if they’re going to win games.

In his second full season as a starter, Tuel will have to limit his interceptions and sharpen up on short and intermediate routes. In third-and-short situations, he completed 53.5 percent of his passes; in third-and-long, he completed 60.3.

The Fresno, Calif., native will have Wilson to throw to again, as well as senior red-zone target Jared Karstetter, who snagged seven touchdowns to Wilson’s six. Both were top-10 in TD receptions among conference wideouts; Stanford and USC were the only other teams who had two players rank that high.

Fun fact: During his junior year at Clovis West High, Tuel backed up former Cal QB Beau Sweeney. Sweeney, who still has two years of college eligibility, transferred to Cornell this offseason after dropping out of the competition for QB1 during spring practice.

Key Questions

1. How many games do the Cougars win? If you put the over-under at two, I’m inclined to take the over. The team will probably take some more infinitesimal steps forward, and the schedule is friendlier than it was in 2010. The Cougars start off the season against Idaho State instead of Oklahoma State, and they won’t have to play USC at all until 2012.

2. How hot is Paul Wulff’s seat? According to Rivals.com, it’s the fifth-hottest in the country. (The site does have Texas’ Mack Brown at No. 4, so the rankings are somewhat dubious.) Since signing a five-year contract in 2008, the former Eastern Washington coach has led the Cougars to two last-place finishes. His overall record is 5-32.

It’s hard to believe that WSU made the Rose Bowl as recently as 2003. If Wulff can’t field at least a middling squad this season, he’s probably gone — even considering his (relatively) meager $600,000 annual salary.

Outlook

One of the most dependable constants in recent Pac-10 history has been Washington State’s ineptitude. Don’t expect that to change significantly in the Pac-12; the Cougars are probably better than Colorado and potentially better than UCLA, but neither are division opponents.

Image source: Tambako the Jaguar under Creative Commons

Correction(s):
A previous version of this post said that WSU’s last bowl berth was the 2003 Rose Bowl. It defeated Texas in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30, 2003.