The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Bruins

LET'S BE RIGHT up front about Washington State's game Saturday at UCLA: I don't trust the Cougars' chances one bit. It's not that I'm down on the 3-1 Cougs, or think UCLA is suddenly elite. Washington State might win laughing. On paper, I think Cougars have some advantages, particularly if the running game gets going.

And it could be argued that WSU will face the Pac-12's two worst quarterbacks on consecutive Saturdays in Colorado's Tyler Hansen and whoever is the flavor of the week at UCLA.

What concerns me is what concerns me about any young program trying to find its way: dealing with prosperity.

I don't doubt for a minute that Paul Wulff will pull out all the stops this week to get his team to ignore outsider chatter about an inevitable win at UCLA. The Bruins might be the worst team in the Pac-12, despite proving otherwise at Oregon State a few weeks ago. Give Beavers redshirt freshman Sean Mannion another month of seasoning, and I think he would roast the Bruins.

But Washington State, for all the strides it has made during the past month, is still a program in transition. The Cougars proved they could win on the road, as they did in 2010 at Oregon State, and last Saturday at Colorado. But good programs, those that aspire to a bowl game beyond one in New Mexico, put it together on back-to-back Saturdays.

And even though it's Colorado and UCLA on consecutive weeks, winning back-to-back road games is damn hard for any Pac-12 school.

During the past two Pac-10 seasons, league schools had 32 situations where they played back-to-back road games. Only five times did the school pull off consecutive road wins, twice in 2010 (Stanford and USC) and three times in 2009 (Arizona, Oregon and USC.)

Five-for-32. Those aren't good odds.

During the past two years, only one league school didn't play back-to-back road games during a season. The team: Oregon, in 2011. The Ducks went to the BCS Championship game. Coincidence? I think not.

I wrote a few weeks ago, after the pasting of Nevada-Las Vegas, that WSU was a bowl team. I'll timidly stand by that, but the San Diego State game reminded all of us that the rebuild of the Cougar program is still not complete. That was a game Washington State had in its grasp, and let slip. The Cougars appeared to have learned a valuable lesson in how to grind on the road when they rallied to beat Colorado.

Washington State win two consecutive Pac-12 games, let alone two on the road? The last time the Cougars won back-to-back league games was 2006 (Oregon and UCLA). The last time they won consecutive Pac-10 road games was 2002 (Stanford and Arizona).

It can be done. But the last time WSU two straight on the road, it ended the season in the Rose Bowl.

Sure, it's just UCLA. Rick Neuheisel is proving to be a terrible head coach. He had excuses at Colorado and Washington, although it's hard to deny that much of it was his own doing. But Rick has had four years to get it turned around at UCLA, free of distractions. The Bruins might be worse today than they were when the keys were turned over to Neuheisel in 2008.

A program builder Neuheisel isn't. But, when cornered, his teams can be dangerous. The Huskies, under him, pulled off head-scratching wins a couple times after they were written off. Neuheisel's Bruins have had moments of surprise, too; last year's ugly win at Tennessee and the beatdown at Texas come to mind.

At 2-3, with wins over San Jose State and Oregon State and losses to Houston, Texas and Stanford, Neuheisel may be coaching for his career Saturday. After Washington State, there aren't many question-marks left on UCLA's schedule. To the Bruins faithful, the Cougars are a must win.

KICKOFF: In the Rose Bowl at 7:30 p.m., with TV coverage on Root Sports (FSN).

THE LINE: Bruins by 3 ½.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: Since the start of the 2001 season, WSU has won three of five against UCLA at the Rose Bowl and six of 10 overall. Paul Wulff was WSU's starting center in the most heart-pounding of those victories -- the 1988 come-from-behind squeaker over Troy Aikman and the No. 1 team in the nation.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel