GOOD MORNING PAC-12 CONFERENCE!
In a funky turn of events, our second game against a Pac-12 opponent in 2011 is our first official Pac-12 Conference game. And in what many would consider a lucky break, we get the Cougars of Washington State at home to open our conference schedule. Don't count me as one of those people. Paul Wulff is turning things around up there in Pullman. That's not to say they'll be good this year, because they have been so far from it the last few seasons. I'm not intending to be disrespectful, but boy, does our situation look good compared to WSU. They've shown improvement, but they still have a ways to go.
So yes, this is one of the least frightening looking games on our conference schedule, but that doesn't mean it will be a cakewalk.
Follow the jump to see why it won't be cake that the Buffs will be wading through!
Washington State Cougars
Paul Wolff needs to improve this team. He has overhauled his staff over the last two offseasons, but the damage may already have been done. In many ways, his tenure at WSU thus far resembles that of a certain Dan Hawkins at a certain school in a certain mountain state. Of course, Wulff was willing to fire guys who were underperforming, and his roster was ACTUALLY bare when he took over (if you don't believe me, ask a Cougars fan). One big difference is that he's coaching at his alma mater, so his inability to turn things around has been slightly puzzling. Many people are calling this a make-or-break year for the Cougs, but that will be a tall order for this team. Even if they improve by a good amount, it won't be enough to get them to a bowl game. They were still WAY behind the rest of the conference (at least the rest of the Pac-10, we'll see about us and Utah).
You may not know the name, but you should: Jeff Tuel. In a conference with multiple Heisman candidates, this guy might be the most talented QB. I'm not even kidding. He doesn't have nearly the supporting staff to put up the kind of numbers that Andrew Luck, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley or Darron Thomas can, but he's every bit as talented as everyone listed there. He gives them hope, but he won't be enough. That was evident last season. He put up solid numbers, but has been sacked more times than ANYONE in college football. And it's not even close. I can't even copy the numbers they are so bad. Look them up if you want to see them. And what's scary is that whole offensive line returns. Four seniors will line up with sophomore John Fullington at left guard. But how good are they? The staff up there has not done a good job of recruiting along the offensive line, and it shows here. WSU fans have been hoping that someone steps up to beat out some of these guys, but it hasn't happened.
Now if those guys up front can give Tuel some time (that is BIG 'if'), he has a couple of weapons outside. Marquess Wilson and Jared Karstetter are two big targets that are pretty underrated. They have a guy who can get them the ball all over the field (again, if he can stay on his feet). Wilson is more of a burner, while Karstetter is a very physical possession guy who excels in the redzone. They also should have some solid competition for the slot receiver position. This unit is one of their strengths, but if that o-line can't protect Tuel, they won't be a factor. This is a matchup that will be worth monitoring. This group of receivers will test our DBs, which we'll need going into our conference schedule.
At running back, Washington State boasts a bit of a thunder & lightening duo in Mitz and Galvin. The former is a bruiser at 225 lbs, and the latter is a 170 lb speedster, but there isn't anyone behind those two to push them. And speaking of 'push,' those guys may be good, but their production won't be up to them. It'll be up to that beleaguered Line they field. The WSU offense could be pretty good, but that line has to be MUCH improved for that to happen.
And honestly, I think the depth in the middle of our defensive line plus the speed off the edges that we seem to have will be too much for their line. Our front seven just needs to be solid to give our defense a big advantage here, and I think, by this point in the season, our front seven will be more than solid.
Washington State's defense is an interesting story. At linebacker, they've got talented athletic kids, but they haven't been able to translate to the field and really anyone could end up starting there. And there is some uncertainty at this point along the defensive line, though a number of players got game experience last season. The problem is, they were not good at dealing with the run last year. They might be better this year, but better will still give up a lot of yards to our offense. I think we will be able to push them around and I think Tyler Hansen will have plenty of time. Junior Travis Long was solid for them last season at defensive end, and is recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, but they'll need more than just one pass rushing threat. I don't think we'll have a problem handling their front seven in the run game.
Their secondary looks solid, though, with a number of young and exciting players. Their safeties, Bucannon and Toomer are solid both against the run (they have to be, with that leaky front seven) and against the pass. The cornerbacks show potential, but they lack experience overall. Truthfully, I think we'll run a balanced enough offense that we shouldn't have trouble moving the ball up and down the field on the Cougars.
I believe they're looking for a snapper, but they have their kicker and punter set and they should be between fair and good on special teams. I don't know much about their coverage units, but they brought in a new ST coordinator who promises to shore up coverage and to inject a little life into their return units.
I wasn't sure until I was writing this preview, but I will be shocked if we don't win this game. WSU should be better this season, but I think we will be able to impose our will on them in this game. I know I said it wouldn't be a cakewalk, and I don't think it will be, but it's tough to predict a loss here. And not only that, it's tough for me to predict a close game. I feel for Washington State fans after the last five seasons in Boulder, but I don't know if they can make it happen this season.