The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Utes

BRANDON RANKIN

AFTER ALL THE gnashing of teeth, after all the midseason heartache, it's time to focus on another topic of possibility for Washington State as it prepares for Saturday's game against Utah.

A bowl game.

Suddenly, the prospect doesn't seem so far fetched after the Cougars' 37-27 win over Arizona State. At 4-6, the possibility becomes reality for WSU if it beats Utah and Washington in the final two games. The Cougs opened as a 5.5 point underdog. The line is now down to 3.5.

For precedent, see that other Pac-12 team in the state. Last year, the Huskies were 3-6, only to finish up by winning three consecutive games and grab a Holiday Bowl berth.

The scene Washington painted last year looks no different than the one the Cougars face in 2011.

There isn't an Oregon or a Stanford or a USC among Washington State's remaining two opponents. The final games against Utah and Washington are average opponents and winnable contests.

If DT Brandon Rankin and Washington State can stop the run, it can beat Utah. The Cougars must jump on the Utes, get the lead and force Utah to use its crappy passing game. The Utes have won three straight games, but it's over three teams that may finish the season with losing records in Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA.

As for Washington, anyone here think the overrated Huskies are finally coming to Earth? Washington has been exposed the past four weeks as a program with still much work to do. The team least expected to win has won many Apple Cups. UW will undoubtedly be the favorite at Century Link Field, but a confident Cougars team riding a two-game winning streak will take some beating.

At 6-6, Washington State is likely headed to a bowl game. The Pac-12 is contractually obligated to seven bowl games (Rose, Kraft Fight Hunger, Sun, Alamo, Holiday, Vegas, New Mexico). It's also possible an eighth berth will become available if Stanford finishes 11-1 and gets a BCS at-large bid, or if the Pac-12 South winner upsets Oregon.

Currently, Oregon, Stanford, Washington, California, Arizona State and Utah are bowl-eligible. USC, Oregon State, Colorado and Arizona are out of the postseason picture. Only UCLA (5-5) and Washington State (4-6) are unsettled.

If the Pac-12 ends up with only seven bowl berths, and Washington State is 6-6, the Cougars could make a strong case if there's debate over a bowl berth against a six-win Washington, Utah or Arizona State team. WSU will have wins over all those teams, and the pent-up interest from Cougar boosters who haven't made a bowl trip in eight years.

I know, I know. We're getting ahead of ourselves here. But for Cougar fans, it sure is fun to think about, isn't it.

The kickoff: Utah (6-4, 3-4) at Washington State (4-6, 2-5) 2 p.m. Saturday in Martin Stadium. FCS Atlantic.

The series: The last time these two teams hooked up was 2000, when WSU beat Utah 38-21 in Salt Lake City. The Cougars and Utes have played 10 games, each school winning five times. In Pullman, WSU is 1-3 against Utah, its lone win coming in 1984. Washington State and Utah once played in the 1992 Copper Bowl, where the Cougars won 31-28 in Tucson.

Familiar faces: Utah is the rare Pac-12 program with no visible player ties to Washington or a coach who formerly spent time at Washington State.

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

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