Posted on August 22, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
Off the field distractions have stolen the spotlight from Washington State’s roster as it enters its second season under Nick Rolovich.
Setting aside the controversy over mandated vaccines, the Cougars return four starters along the offensive line, boosting one of the top backfields in the Pac-12.
Max Borghi missed most of last year, but Deon McIntosh shined in his place. With both running backs healthy, and a proper offseason to learn Rolovich’s Run-and-Shoot offense, a bowl game is a realistic expectation.
Star wide receiver Renard Bell is out for the season with an ACL tear and 23 WSU players entered the transfer portal, yet leading wide receiver Travell Harris is back along with star linebacker Jahad Woods.
With just under two weeks remaining until the opener against Utah State, a quarterback battle for the starting role rages on as returning starter Jayden de Laura looks to fend off Cammon Cooper and Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano.
But it might not matter who ends up as QB1 if the Cougar defense isn’t able to improve on the 38.5 points per game it gave up in 2020.
Rolovich makes a decisive decision on the starting quarterback, cementing de Laura as the Number One option. The trust in the Hawaii-native pays off, leading to a blowout victory over Utah State to start the season.
After another lopsided win over Portland State, the Cougs keep the Week 3 matchup with USC closer than expected, and fall short in Salt Lake City in Week 4.
Despite the media frenzy calling for Rolovich to be fired over the vaccine mandate, he rallies the team to victories over California, Oregon State, and Stanford.
And on the Palouse, the WSU Run-and-Shoot gashes BYU for a double-digit win that secures a bowl game. Although the year ends with defeats to Arizona State, Oregon, and Washington, the matchup with Arizona results in a seven-win regular season.
Worst Case Scenario
The Washington State defense doesn’t improve under second-year coordinator Jake Dickert, as the program stumbles to a 4-8 season.
Despite an offense that moves the ball effectively, the Cougars give up too many points down the stretch and lose several games by a touchdown or less.
Borghi and McIntosh take advantage of a strong offensive line and the holes opened up by Rolovich’s scheme, but de Laura is inconsistent while Cooper and Guarantano aren’t any better.
The struggles under center are highlighted by back-breaking interceptions in the second half, stalling any comebacks and surrendering fourth quarter leads.
Forced to play from behind, the WSU offense isn’t able to operate as effectively as it could.
And after the transfer of starting punter Oscar Draguicevich III and starting kicker Blake Mazza, miscues on special teams snowball into a catastrophic end to the year.
What Should Happen
The Run-and-Shoot was generally effective in its first season in the Conference of Champions. Opponents struggled at times to limit de Laura’s passing and McIntosh’s bursts, as the designed spread kept defenses guessing.
The Cougars were leading against Oregon and dominating Utah until its defense collapsed in both games, potentially denting the offense’s belief in the team’s ability to win games moving forward.
But with another year to learn Rolovich’s schemes and a healthy Borghi, the WSU offense shouldn’t have any doubt in itself.
The defense, on the other hand, remains an open question.
In Year Two under Dickert’s command, the unit should hold opponents to fewer points per game. Woods returns alongside linebacker Justus Rogers, and leading tackler Daniel Isom figures to hold down his side of the field once again.
With 10 starters returning, expectations are higher and any shortcomings could cost the program wins.
But after facing Oregon, USC, and Utah in three of the team’s four games last year, it’s probably too soon to judge Dickert’s defense. Assuming the unit takes a step forward as projected, a 6-6 season and a bowl game is likely in the cards.
What Must Happen
Turnovers must be limited.
Last year, de Laura struggled in the final games of the season, ending the year with four interceptions to just five touchdowns. And the Cougars as a whole had a -0.5 turnover margin, which was 10th in the Pac-12.
With a defense that struggles at times, the turnover prone offense must take better care of the ball.
Decision-making from the quarterback is key, but the Cougs lost four fumbles in the shortened season.
There aren’t many backfields in the Pac-12 stronger than Borghi and McIntosh.
The one-two punch from the duo figures to carry the day for Washington State in close games, despite WSU being near the bottom of the Conference in rushing yards per contest.
Averaging just six first downs on the ground per night, it might seem odd to point to the backs as the strength of the team. Yet, Borghi and McIntosh are capable of busting chunk plays and each can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Mix in an offensive line that returns four starters, including projected All-Conference tackle Abraham Lucas, and it’s safe to project a breakout year from Rolovich’s rushing attack.
Apart from WSU’s well-documented struggles on defense, the off the field issues with Rolovich might be the biggest concern for the 2021 season.
The first game has yet to be played and there are already loud calls for the second-year coach to be fired.
Programs dealing with those types of questions from the media, before and after games, tend to have poor performances on the field.
Any struggles the team faces are immediately blamed on the distractions, and players and coaching staffs get frustrated with the knee-jerk reactions.
Fortunately, the noise surrounding Rolovich’s decision to refrain from taking the coronavirus vaccine appears to be coming from outside the locker room, not within it.
The Cougar defense figures to make-or-break the team’s season.
There is enough talent on offense to make a bowl game, but it could be an uphill battle if Dickert’s unit doesn’t improve. And it might all start in the secondary.
Washington State gave up 14.3 first downs per game through the air last year, while surrendering 307 yards passing per night. Starting safety Ayden Hector transferred, but the remainder of the starting WSU defensive backs return.
Generating interceptions figures to loom large, after the Cougs snagged just two in the four games played last season.
But if the secondary holds opponents to fewer first downs through the air and produces more turnovers, a winning season should be achievable.
The year opens with three-straight home games against Utah State, Portland State, and USC. Failing to start 2-1 might doom the year before it gets going.
The first road test of the season is at Utah, a battle that might be closer than expected but likely ends in defeat. Week Five features a road game at California, a result that could indicate how the remainder of the season goes.
Home matchups with Oregon State, Stanford, and BYU follow. Assuming the WSU defense has improved, a 3-0 mark over the stretch is a fair expectation.
The year ends with the gauntlet of Arizona State, Oregon, and Washington all on the road. Fortunately, an expected victory at home against Arizona is squeezed in after the matchup in Eugene.
Unless the defense takes another step back in 2021, a 6-6 season appears to be the fairest projection for Washington State. And if things go right, a seven-win regular season with an eighth win in a bowl game could be within reach.
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