Cleat Geeks

2016 Pac 12 Preview: Washington State Cougars

For nearly the past decade, the North division has dominated the Pac-12, bringing in the conference champion every year since 2008 and hovering as the best overall division in all of college football. In a division that has been headlined by Oregon and Stanford during that span, there is much more competition heading into 2016. Washington is much stronger this season and faces huge national expectations with a possible conference crown on the horizon. Washington State is no team to sleep on due to their fast-paced offense and high-powered passing attack headlined by All-Pac 12 QB Luke Falk. The bottom feeders of the division this season figure to be California and Oregon State. The Golden Bears are faced with the tough task to replace 1st overall pick Jared Goff under center, while the Beavers are tasked with the mission of bouncing back from a winless season in conference play. Both, however, will be scrappy teams who could serve as a threat to end a team’s Playoff hopes.Pac12IntroPhoto

Take a look as we dig deep into the Pac-12 North division. Comment with some predictions of your own regarding the Washington State Cougars. Will Luke Falk and the air-raid offense be enough against tough Pac-12 opponents? Follow @JonValencia_WiB for more Pac-12 updates throughout the offseason as we gear up for opening week.

4 – Washington State Cougars (7-5, 5-4 – NORTH)

Players to Watch: QB Luke Falk, WR Gabe Marks, DE Hercules Mata’afa
Key Departures: OT Joe Dahl

Following a huge upset loss against Portland State to start the 2015 season, Mike Leach rallied his guys as they finished an impressive 9-4 with wins against UCLA, Oregon and a bowl win against Miami. Arguably one of the best fast-paced offenses in the nation who are lethal when operating the two-minute drill. It starts and ends with All-conference QB Luke Falk, the most decorated passer in the Pac-12 coming off a season in which he completed nearly 70% of his passes to go with 4,561 passing yards and 38 TDs to just 8 INTs. Any air-raid offense will inflate a QB’s stats, but Falk is the real deal.

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Returning to Falk are nearly his entire WR corps from last season, headlined by Gabe Marks who will be up for All-Pac 12 honors yet again this season following his 100+ catch, 1,192 yard, 15 TD campaign. The senior is bound for another huge season. Complimenting him is fellow senior River Cracraft. He could emerge as a 1,000 yard receiver opposite Marks if he can stay healthy this season. Robert Lewis occupies the slot and can be dangerous inside. In an air-raid offense, there will plenty of production to go around, especially when you have talent in the WR corps like the Cougars do.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The running game was nearly non-existent for the Cougars last season, as you would expect from a team who places such an emphasis on throwing the football. Gerard Wicks returns as the starter in the backfield, his 610 yards on the ground were the most since 2007. Redshirt freshman James Williams is a name to watch for, he displayed a nice skill-set in the Spring Game. While they will throw the ball way more often than not, there should be a bit more balance this season between a progressing Wicks and impressive Williams.

On the offensive line the Cougars lost star left tackle Joe Dahl who was drafted in the 5th round of the NFL Draft, as the biggest concern for this team is replacing the left side of their offensive line. In an offense that passes so much, you need to be able to protect the QB from the blindside. Sophomore Andre Dillard will succeed Dahl. The former two-star recruit has put on nearly 50 pounds since arriving on campus. He has seen scarce playing time, so some growing pains are to be expected. Veterans such as: Riley Sorenson, Eduardo Middleton, Cole Madison bring much needed experience.

RobertBarberWith such a fast-paced offense, the defense will be on the field a lot. Fielding a nickel package led by defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, the Cougars return only two starters in their front 6, but those players may be the most important. Up front they re-gain nose tackle Robert Barber for one last season, a key component in what was a weak defense against the run in 2015. The other being middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer who has blossomed into the defensive leader and one of the best MLBs in the conference after leading the team with over 100 tackles last season. Hercules Mata’afa is a name to watch for as he steps in as a new starter at defensive end. The Hawaiian racked up 7 sacks in a rotational role as a redshirt freshman.

Back in the secondary, Leach sees four of his five starters come back which is huge in this defensive scheme. Former rugby player Shalom Luani leads the charge in the defensive backfield. After coming off as a JUCO transfer, he led the Cougars with four interceptions. The Samoan is in for a big senior campaign. Returning starters Parker Henry, Marcellus Pippins and Darrien Molton occupy all three corner positions and bring coveted experience to the system.

I’m projecting a 7-9 win season for the Cougars. Not to say they’re worse than last season, but the Pac-12 just keeps on getting stronger. Luke Falk will have another monster season, but the departure of Joe Dahl at left tackle will hurt more than most think with an inexperienced Andre Dillard stepping in. Any Mike Leach led team will compete due to their ability to operate quickly and put points on the board, but will their defense be able to hold up against opposing conference offense, along with an early road test against a good Boise State team. Last season they started slow, but they will have to do the opposite this year with a tough mid-season schedule which features consecutive games against Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. Another mid-tier bowl game will be in the works for Washington State this season.

Photo by: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Photo by: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

9/3: vs Eastern Washington W
9/10: @ Boise State L
9/17: vs Idaho W
10/1: vs Oregon W
10/8: @ Stanford L
10/15: vs UCLA L
10/22: @ Arizona State W
10/29: @ Oregon State W
11/5: vs Arizona L
11/12: vs California W
11/19: @ Colorado W
11/25: vs Washington L

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