Three offseason questions: Washington State

As we head to the offseason, here are three questions facing Washington State:

Can the Cougars take the next step?

After several years of irrelevance, it was only a matter of time before Washington State righted the ship and turned in a season like the one that just concluded. That’s just the cyclical nature of college football.

With a 9-4 record, capped by a win against Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, the Cougars had their best season since 2003. Jumps like the one WSU made happen with a fair degree of regularity, but taking the next step -- from a fringe top 25-caliber team to a conference title contender -- will be much harder. They’ll miss outgoing seniors LT Joe Dahl, LG Gunnar Eklund and WR Dom Williams, but with the other eight offensive starters returning -- including first-team All-Pac-12 selections QB Luke Falk and WR Gabe Marks -- WSU, which ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (33.8 points per game), has the potential to be one of the most explosive units in the country.

With Stanford and Oregon both losing their starting quarterbacks headed into next season -- along with several other key pieces -- 2016 sets up well for the Cougars to take a run at the division title. They split with Stanford and Oregon in a pair of close games this year and, at least theoretically, should be better next season.

What’s next from the running backs?

WSU doubled its rushing yards per game (39.8 per game to 80.5) this year and while coach Mike Leach will never prioritize that aspect of his offense, he will have an impressive collection of talented running backs to use how he sees fit. They were already in good shape with Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington -- the trio combined for 1,027 yards rushing and 114 catches for 734 yards -- but the coaching staff is high on James Williams, who redshirted as a true freshman this year. CougCenter has some impressive clips of him in practice this year that should have WSU fans intrigued.

How will Alex Grinch’s defense evolve?

In his first year as a coordinator, Alex Grinch dropped the Cougars’ scoring defense from 38.6 points per game to 27.7. It was the fewest points per game the Cougars allowed since 2006 and Grinch got it done primarily with base concepts. They have some key pieces to replace -- notably Jeremiah Allison, Darryl Paulo, Destiny Vaeao and Taylor Taliulu -- but a second offseason with Grinch in the fold should allow for a better overall understanding of the scheme from the players. Plus, it makes sense to assume Grinch will be more comfortable as a playcaller in Year 2, as well.