The 2016 Washington State Cougars struggled down the stretch. They lost their last three games due to inconsistencies on both sides of the ball. The Cougars defense has never been consistent during the Mike Leach era, but they have improved each year. They return the majority of their starters from last year’s team. The Cougars offense lost their top two receivers, but have a plethora of talented receivers that will need to step up this season. Quarterback Luke Falk returns for his senior season, looking to build upon his stellar sophomore and junior seasons before entering the NFL Draft. The Cougars should be in the thick of the Pac-12 championship race in 2017. Here are five factors that could contribute to the Cougars winning the Pac-12.
Washington State Cougars win the Pac-12 if…
1. Luke Falk Dominates
Luke Falk is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. If he matches his production from his sophomore and junior seasons, he’ll break numerous school and conference records. He gets overshadowed by Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, but Falk may be the best Pac-12 quarterback. The Cougars lost their two top receivers from last season, which will force others to step up in their absence. If Falk is able to gain a rapport with his receivers and improve upon last year’s production, the Cougars will have a solid chance of winning the Pac-12.
2. The Defense Causes Turnovers
The Cougars defense has been their Achilles heel during the Mike Leach era. Leach is an offensive guru, so sometimes the defense doesn’t get the attention that they desperately need. Alex Grinch was handed the reigns to the defense in 2015. The defense has struggled at times, but there’s been steady improvement each year. The Cougars play an off coverage that allows teams to pick up short gains. This style of defense is predicated on not allowing big plays. Their goal is to cause negative plays and get the offense into third and long. That allows their pass rush to attack and create turnovers. If the Cougars defense is able to turnover their opponents, they’ll have a good chance of competing for a Pac-12 championship.
3. Injury Luck
Every championship team gets lucky. It’s a given. If the most talented team is bit by the injury bug, it’s unlikely that they’ll win the championship. The Cougars won’t win the Pac-12 championship if Luke Falk gets injured. He’s their most important player. The Cougars can win any game on their schedule if Falk is healthy. There isn’t another player on the team that will single handedly derail their season if they get hurt, but it’s important that they avoid multiple key players getting hurt at the same time. Every football team deals with injuries. But if the Cougars can stay relatively healthy, they’ll be in the thick of the Pac-12 championship race.
4. Other Teams Falter
The Cougars will need a bit of luck from their opponents to win the Pac-12 title. Whether it’s a key injury or inconsistent play, the Cougars will need other teams in the Pac-12 to under perform. The Washington Huskies won the Pac-12 last season and return most of their key players. The Cougars hope their Apple Cup rival will fail to live up to expectations this season. USC had a phenomenal close to their season once they made Darnold their starting quarterback. Many experts are picking USC to win the Pac-12. The Cougars will need Darnold and company to under perform too. If the Cougars play at a high level throughout the season and have their opponents struggle in key moments, they will have a solid shot of becoming 2017 Pac-12 champions.
5. Offense Is “Balanced”
Leach’s idea of a balanced offense is pass, pass, and pass again. Last year, the Cougars had their most successful year of running the ball during the Mike Leach era. Washington State’s three-headed monster of Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, and James Williams dominated in limited touches. The Cougars like to rotate their running backs to keep everyone fresh. All three running backs will get opportunities this season. They all can catch the ball, which is crucial for running backs in a Mike Leach offense. The Cougars throw a lot of screens and short passes, which Mike Leach considers an extension of the running game. They’ll never have a truly balanced offense, but they will need to run the ball more often than in years past. If the Cougars can run the ball forty percent of the time, they’ll give themselves a good chance of competing for the Pac-12 crown.