Washington State Cougars (2000: 4-7)
The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.
Coach and programIf experience is indeed a huge factor in the Pac-10, Washington State should vastly improve upon its three combined conference wins over the last three seasons.
But does a year of learning really make all that much difference?
As more than one coach has noted in the past, ďThe good news is that we have experience. The bad news is that we have everyone coming back.íí
Washington State coach Mike Price isnít worried about that with the 19 starters he has returning went 4-7 last season. He knows the Cougars were only a few points from a successful season after losing three overtime games in a four-game span.
Certainly the WSU offense has a lot to prove. It averaged 121.3 yards rushing a game last season and whether those same players have a year of experience, they have to improve that mark if they expect to score more than the 25.5 points a game the Cougars mustered.
Putting together the offense will be new coordinator Mike Levenseller, and he has some talent to work with in returning junior quarterback Jason Gesser (6-1, 195), the Pac-10ís most elusive signal caller, along with a former Marine tailback, senior Dave Minnich (6-0, 220).
Although the defense allowed 174.3 rushing yards a game and 412.6 yards of total offense last season, Price believes that unit will be his teamís strength in 2001.
If Gesser can go from exciting to effective, WSUís offense might give its defensive unit enough support to lead to a winning season.
OffenseAn indication of Gesserís importance to the Cougars might have come in last seasonís finale against Washington. With Gesser watching from the sideline with a broken leg, the Cougars managed just three points. In the nine games he played last season, Gesser completed 128 of 246 passes for 1,967 yards. He threw 16 touchdowns and had 10 interceptions.
But it isnít his arm that drives opponents nuts. Gesser is perhaps the most elusive quarterback in the Pac-10. He gained 200 yards rushing last season, a number that was offset by 153 yards in losses because of sacks.
Minnich eventually earned the starting tailback job after the sixth game last season. He finished with 754 yards on 165 carries to go with four touchdowns. Those numbers should increase now that Minnich has a year on the football field after four years in the Marine Corps.
In the search for an impact wide receiver, Price turned toward the basketball team where tremendously athletic junior Mike Bush (6-6, 200) was showing how high he could go up for the ball. Now Bush will be skying high for footballs, as he proved in a short amount of spring practice work that he can make an impact on the football field.
The Cougars have to experiment with an inexperienced player like Bush because they lost their top two wideouts from last season -- including Milton Wynn, picked by the St. Louis Rams in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
While WSU lost its top wide receivers, both tight ends from last year, junior Russell Mizin (6-4, 240) and senior Mark Baldwin (6-6, 245), are back.
Defense and special teamsEarly in the 1990s, WSU often built its fortunes upon its defense, such as the 1994 Palouse Posse that led the nation in total defense.
Price said his current defense has that kind of potential. He said his back seven (three linebackers and four defensive backs) is the most solid of any he has coached.
ďI think weíre going to be outstanding [on defense],íí Price said. ď Raonall Smith and James Price are veteran four-year linebackers. Billy Newman and Lamont Thompson have the same experience in the secondary."
Anchoring the line are junior defensive end Fred Shavies (6-1, 240) and junior tackles Tomasi Kongaika (6-1, 290) and Rien Long (6-7, 280). Shavies had 29 tackles last season, including six for loss and two sacks. Kongaika also had 29 tackles with six tackles for loss and one sack. Long had 15 tackles with five for loss and one sack.
All three starting linebackers return. Seniors Price (5-11, 215) and Smith (6-2, 241) and junior Melvin Simmons (6-1, 210) are primed to have big years. Price was second on the team with 72 tackles last season, including eight for loss. Smith was third with 71 tackles, including 12 for loss.
Thompson (22 career starts) was expected to be an All-America candidate last season at free safety but had to sit out the year because of his neck injury. He is tied for first on the teamís career interception chart with 14.
Junior college transfer Adam Holiday (6-3, 223), a junior, appears to have won the kickoff duties after a strong spring performance. Holiday, who doesnít kick field goals, put a high percentage of his kickoffs into the end zone during spring practice, something WSU kickers could not do last year.
Bottom lineSure, the Cougars have plenty of players back and, yes, they were close to turning the corner last year if they had only won a couple of the overtime games they lost. Even so, this is a team that hasnít yet proven it knows how to win close games, and sometimes that can be an impossible hump to get over.
Worst of all, WSU doesnít really have a strength to hang its hat on, something that creates an identity. Gesser, indeed is elusive, but an apparently weak wide receiver corps could wipe out any substantial passing attack.
Of course, Washington State has surprised all the so-called analysts before, and Price has a magical way of squeezing wine from prunes. But to pick this team to finish anywhere in the top division would be folly.