It's a slow time of year in college football. Spring practices are over, the NFL draft has come and gone, leaving four long months before college football returns to our television screens. We’ve taken a look at some questions facing each Pac-12 team. Today, we finish up with Washington State.
How will the team deal with expectations?
It’s been a long, long time since Washington State will enter a season with comparable expectations to what it will face in 2017. There is a good chance the Cougars will begin the season in the AP poll, which has happened just twice in program history -- 2002, No. 11; 1952, No. 15. In each of the past two seasons, the team has peaked at No. 20 in the poll, but fell out late both times and finished unranked. The last time WSU finished ranked in the AP poll was in 2003 (No. 9). History, in this case, shouldn't be used as an indicator to form expectations for how this team will perform, but it provides some interesting context for how it could potentially be evaluated. The obvious, almost snide, comment here is that first it needs to get through Game 1 against FCS Montana State. After losing to FCS schools the last two seasons, another embarrassing hiccup would be beyond deflating.
What does Luke Falk have in store for an encore?
If Falk left for the NFL after another standout season in 2016, few would have blamed him. In two-plus seasons as the starter, Falk has thrown for 10,893 yards with 89 touchdowns, which puts him within striking distance of the Pac-12 career records. He needs 2,708 yards passing to break former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion's record (13,600) and 28 touchdown passes to pass former USC quarterback Matt Barkley's record (116). He'll have some adjusting to do without receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, but coach Mike Leach has never had a hard time developing receivers. If things break right for WSU, Falk could play himself into the Heisman discussion. He'll have the stats, it's just a question of if he'll have the wins.
But will the offense be more balanced?
Leach isn't going to morph into David Shaw any time soon, but he'll have arguably the best group of running backs in the conference next season. Two years ago, WSU ran for just 478 yards in the entire season (39.8 yards per game), but last season those numbers jumped to 1,560 and 120.0. Returning running backs James Williams (584 yards), Jamal Morrow (575) and Gerard Wicks (475) all averaged over 5.4 yards per carry in 2016, which makes handing the ball off more consistently an intriguing option. It's not the Leach way, but having an even more reliable running game should make Falk's job easier.