College Football Countdown: No. 84 Washington State

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 84: Washington State

Coach: Mike Leach (0-0, first season; 84-43 10 years)

2011 record: 4-8 (2-7 in Pac-12 Conference, sixth in North Division)

Look back: 2010 was a do-or-die season, so to speak, for Paul Wulff and Washington State. The Cougars had suffered four straight losing seasons – three under Wulff – and the Hot Seat was starting to heat up for the fourth year coach. The team opened by winning three of its first four games but injuries and a lack of experience cost the team late as the squad lost seven of its remaining eight games to finish at 4-8. While his best season yet in Pullman, it wasn’t enough to save Wulff, who was fired in the offseason.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/6

Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7

Key losses: QB Marshall Lobbestael, WR Jared Karstetter, Isiah Barton, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis

Top returnees: RB Rickey Galvin, WR Marquess Wilson, DE Travis Long, CB Nolan Washington, CB Damante Horton

Strengths: Washington State was second in the Pac-12 in passing (322.2 yards per game) and you can expect those numbers to rise under first-year coach Mike Leach. With his patented Air Raid offense, the Cougars should be expected to put up some big offensive numbers this season. Which is good news for quarterback Jeff Tuel, who is making his way back from injury in 2011. If Tuel struggles, look for Connor Halliday to take the reins of the offense. Wide receiver Marquess Wilson hauled in 82 catches for 1,388 yards with 12 touchdowns and he will be expected to be the main go-to guy in the team’s passing game especially after losing fellow receivers Jared Karstettler (60/700.6) and Isiah Barton (49/638/5). The running game features a tandem of Rickey Galvin and Carl Winston. Both combined to rush for over 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns. The defensive line returns three starters including defensive end Travis Long, who led the team in tackles for loss (12.0) and sacks (4.0). The secondary also is rich with talent and experience led by CB Deone Bucannon, who was second on the team in tackles (80) and interceptions (3.0).

Weaknesses: Linebacker will be  a huge concern for the defensive unit. The squad loses three players – Alex Hoffman-Ellis, C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi – who combined for a total of 186 total tackles and six sacks. Finding replacements will be key for a squad that finished sixth in the Pac-12 in total defense.

Outlook: It’s been a rough stretch in Pullman. Over the past decade, the program has gone 49-72 with a record of 9-40 over the past four seasons. Mike Leach’s hiring has brought some excitement back to the program. Scoring points has never seemed to be a problem for Leach’s teams and that shouldn’t be the case for Washington State. However, its’ the defense that will need to step up if the Cougars are going to make some noise in the Pac-12. The schedule features a lack of back-to-back home games so Washington State will have to make their home wins count. A Sept. 29 battle against Oregon at CenturyLink Field in Seattle could go a long way to making or breaking this team’s season.

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 at BYU

Sept. 8 Eastern Washington

Sept. 15 at UNLV

Sept. 22 Colorado

Sept. 29 vs. Oregon

Oct. 6 at Oregon State

Oct. 13 California

Oct. 27 at Stanford

Nov. 3 at Utah

Nov. 10 UCLA

Nov. 17 at Arizona State

Nov. 23 Washington

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