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1. THE ROSTER DECIMATION HAS SUBSIDED
Between players quitting, being gently let go and getting outright thrown off the team, the WSU roster casualty list in 2012 was considerable. By my count, 19 scholarship players were removed from the roster during Mike Leach's first 12 months on the job. Many, including Marquess Wilson, Anthony Laurenzi, C.J. Mizell, Sekope Kaufusi, Dan Spitz, Lenard Williams and Jordan Pu'u Robinson featured prominently in Paul Wulff's system. Out of the 22 starters who lined up in Wulff's final loss in Apple Cup 2011, only three (John Fullington, Matt Goetz, and Deone Bucannon) would start in Mike Leach's victory against the Huskies one year later.
2. EXPERIENCE ABOUNDS
With 16 returning starters and 43 returning lettermen, the 2013 Cougars can rightly be called a veteran team, even if they are still young in several spots. Four seniors were listed atop the pre-spring o-line depth chart and even if there's some movement there by the time fall camp ends, those seniors will provide experienced depth. And every skill position player has starting experience. Connor Halliday has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns in sporadic starting duty in his first two seasons and, assuming he holds off Austin Apodaca, offers as much potential upside as anybody on the roster. Defensively, every starting player but one returns from the squad that won the Apple Cup, along with both kickers and the punter.
3. THE INFLUX OF NEW TALENT IS ONLY BEGINNING
While roster attrition made early playing time a necessity, the quality of recruiting in the Mike Leach era became evident very quickly. Gabe Marks, Brett Bartolone, Justin Sagote and Ioane Gauta were all solid starters in their first season, and many more made contributions. The 2013 class was even more highly regarded and features six JC transfers. Nothing builds momentum in a program like time and talent.
4. THE “REGRESSION” FROM 2011 WAS HEAVILY EXAGGERATED
With expectations of a bowl game in 2012 falling flat, some considered it a dramatic regression under Leach, and damned near a tragedy. But the statistics tell a different story. Much of the offensive exposition in Wulff's final season came at the front end against weak competition -- Marshall Lobbestael leading the nation in passing for three weeks should have been, in retrospect, a bit of a red flag. Comparing the two years, by examining the statistics against Pac-12 competition, shows little difference -- if anything, it shows slight improvement in 2012. Offensive yards per game increased from 345 to 364, while defensive yards surrendered dropped from 423 to 417. Mike Leach's aggressive passing offense yielded more sacks and interceptions than Wulff's, but these were more than compensated by the dramatic increase in sacks (plus-18), forced fumbles (plus-4) and interceptions (plus-6) generated on the other side of the ball by Mike Breske's aggressive D. Considering that Leach was able to deliver roughly the same results against tougher competition (combined record of 66-50 in 2012 vs 63-55 in 2011), with what amounts to about half of Wulff's 2011 team, why temper the expectations? Leach actually has a much higher level of returning talent than Wulff was going to have in 2012 had he been retained. Why should the outlook for these two Cougar teams be so different?
5. THE LEARNING IS OVER, THE PROGRESS IS BEGINNING
The old bromide is that a team's biggest improvement in a season come between games one and two. Similarly, players (and coaches) often show the most dramatic improvement between their first and second seasons. The WSU coaches know their personnel. The introduction of terminology, methods, techniques and routines is over -- serious progress starts being made in Year 2. The key to Leach's system has always been repetition, repetition, repetition. It will show in 2013.
6. SOMETIMES OFFENSIVE LINES JUST GEL
From my view, the offensive line position is the generally the least talent driven in football. Good coaching and experience seem to be more important. For the last five seasons, WSU’s offensive line has been nothing short of abysmal. Last season the Cougs gave up the most sacks in the country and finished dead last in both rushing attempts and rushing yards. The good news is that the Cougs would hard-pressed to do anything but improve. They return four OL starters plus Rico Forbes who would have started last year had he not been injured. A number of incoming WSU rookies that includes two JC players stand ready replace anyone who falters. There should be both experience and real depth, both of which were utterly absent last year.
7. THE MARGIN BETWEEN WINNING AND LOSING ISN'T AS BIG AS PEOPLE THINK
Consider how Oregon State went from 3-9 in 2011 to 9-4 in 2012 despite fielding almost the exact same personnel and coaches, except they were a year older, (not to mention Utah and Cal, who did almost the opposite). The only constant in college football is change, and a tiny edge can often make a huge difference. Except for Auburn, USC, Oregon, and Stanford (none of whom WSU plays in Martin Stadium) the talent gap between WSU and its opponents is small and getting smaller. Heck, the Cougs only lost to conference champion Stanford by a touchdown in Palo Alto last year. WSU's bowl hopes rest on beating the likes of Idaho, Southern Utah, Oregon State, Arizona State, and Utah, all of whom come to Pullman.
8. EXPECT IMPROVEMENT AT INSIDE RECEIVER
As good as Marks/Myers and Wilson/Williams looked at outside receiver at times last season (18 total touchdown catches), the inside receivers didn’t enjoy nearly the same level of success in the end zone (4 total touchdown catches). The Andrei Lintz experiment was a flop. Ricky Galvin was injured almost the entire season. Gino Simone never lived up to expectations. Only freshman Brett Bartolone and sophomore Bobby Ratliff really looked at home playing the slot. New inside receivers coach David Yost was brought in to help fix the problems and will have a ton of newly recruited receivers to work with. Considering how key players like Halliday, Marks, and Bartolone were not even a part of Leach's first spring practices, a substantial improvement in the overall passing game would be no surprise.
9. THE SCHEDULE HAS A MANAGEABLE PACE
Sure it opens rough, but even if we assume back to back losses at Auburn and USC, Southern Utah and Idaho should get the Cougs back to .500. Stanford is a projected loss, but Cal should be very beatable. Halfway through the season, the Cougs could (and should?) still be at .500. The second half of the season has the Cougs going to Oregon and hosting Oregon State. Tough matchups, but a home upset against the Beavers wouldn’t be a shocker. Next up are Arizona State at home and a road date with Arizona with bye weeks before both matchups . Talk about upset material. Finally the Cougs finish hosting the Utes, and then another Friday night Apple Cup, in Seattle. WSU let some games slip away last year, and that shouldn’t be the case in 2013 with the experience gained – getting a bowl bid then becomes a very real possibility.
10. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE BEING OVERLOOKED
Last season WSU beat UW, UW beat Stanford, Stanford beat Oregon, Oregon beat Kansas State, Kansas State beat Miami, Miami beat NC State, NC State beat Florida State, Florida State beat Clemson, Clemson beat LSU, LSU beat Texas A&M, and Texas A&M beat Alabama...never underestimate a team who is just 10 degrees from a national championship. :-)