Best case-worst case: Washington State

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

First in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Up first: Washington State

Best case

It wasn't long ago that losing by 10 points at home to Stanford would have been a terrible outcome for Washington State, but a 30-20 opening defeat to the fast-rising, experienced Cardinal provided grounds for Cougars optimism as the 2009 season began.

For one, Stanford beat the Cougars 58-0 a year ago.

Second, the game was in doubt until the fourth quarter, when a surprisingly stout WSU defense finally let Stanford tailback Toby Gerhart find some cracks.

That optimism was further validated when the Cougars improved to 2-1 with victories over Hawaii and SMU. Andy Mattingly and Louis Bland led a rejuvenated pass rush, and four interceptions, two from safety Xavier Hicks, stymied a pair of pass-happy offenses.

Decisive losses at USC and Oregon reminded the Cougars that there was still a gap between them and the top of the conference, but an upset of Arizona State evened the record at 3-3. Quarterback Marshall Lobbestael shocked a tough Sun Devils defense with a pair of touchdown passes, while running backs James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy combined for 195 yards rushing, 50 more than Georgia had in its surprisingly tight win over ASU a few weeks before.

The Cougars couldn't keep up with Jahvid Best in Berkeley, but the Paul Wulff Era took a decisive uptick with a nationally televised upset of No. 15 Notre Dame in San Antonio. Cougars fans painted the Riverwalk crimson while pointing out they'd won the game and the party.

A late touchdown left the Cougars frustrated at Arizona, and bowl hopes were doused by consecutive home defeats to UCLA and Oregon State.

The Cougars then traveled across the state to Seattle, with the 5-6 Huskies knowing a single win would transform their program from 0-12 in '08 to bowl eligible a season later.

But a 45-yard field goal from Nico Grasu in the waning moments gave the Cougars their fifth Apple Cup victory in six seasons.

"We are not satisfied with 5-7 by any stretch," Wulff said. "But we can build on this."

Worst case

It wasn't just the score. Opening with a 38-3 home loss to Stanford was significantly closer -- at least mathematically -- than the 58-0 blanking Washington State suffered on the Farm a year before.

No, it was 254 yards rushing from Toby Gerhart, a total that eclipsed the Cougars entire offensive output. A year after owning the nation's worst run defense, it appeared that little had improved and that the Cougars weren't physically ready for Pac-10 play.

Or WAC or Conference USA play either after Hawaii and SMU ran the Cougars ragged. The specter of a winless season begins to hover over the program, and athletic director Jim Sterk is forced to give coach Paul Wulff a dreaded "vote of confidence."

It becomes clear as the losses pile up that things are going to have to get worse in Pullman before they begin to get better. A handful of injuries make things even harder for a young team that is thin at just about every position.

The Cougars play better in November, almost upsetting UCLA at home and playing a competitive game for a half with Oregon State.

But they are winless heading into the Apple Cup to face a Husky program that is hungry for revenge and that also is showing signs of life under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, particularly on the recruiting trail.

So a 42-17 loss is particularly galling. Not only does it leave the Cougars winless, but it also sends the Huskies to their first bowl game since 2002 and inspires Jake Heaps to switch his commitment from BYU to Washington.