Bill Doba looks at it this way: At least he has choices. For instance, he could look at his second year as the head coach at Washington State as simply starting over, and he wouldn't get an argument. Gone is the most successful class in Cougar history -- players who amassed 30 victories over the past three years. All but six positions will feature new starters this year.
Instead, Doba prefers to think of what's facing him and his program as a continuation.
"We're younger -- but we're not that young," said Doba, who guided the Cougars to a 10-3 record and a No. 9 ranking as a 62-year-old rookie head coach. "There are some areas where we're inexperienced, but a lot of these kids have played important games for us.
"It looks dire, losing 16 starters, but that's a little misleading."
In fact, Doba doesn't see any real parallels between this particular Cougar crossroads and the other all-too-familiar times when a great WSU season was followed by a freefall.
"The difference now is that we have better athletes in the program and some guys to look at -- we have options," Doba said. "We don't just have to hand a job to a guy, which has sometimes been the case in the past."
OffenseSophomore Josh Swogger, who struggled in relief of Matt Kegel last season, takes over as the Cougars' new starting quarterback. Running back Chris Bruhn's size and burst to the line make him a tough customer, but he's very much a work in progress. The revelation of the spring was the return of Allen Thompson, out for two years with various injuries but a solid complement to Bruhn if he can stay in one piece.
Receivers Chris Jordan (28 catches in 2003), Jason Hill, Trandon Harvey and Tramaine Murray return, along with Marty Martin, whose strong spring put him in the picture.
If the Cougars are unsettled in the skill areas, the line should buy a them a little time. Tackles Calvin Armstrong and Sam Lightbody are the bookends, and Doba thinks he has one of the Pac-10's top centers in junior Nick Mihlhauser.
DefenseOn the front, only senior Steve Cook returns with any experience. The Cougars uncovered a potential gem in the spring in freshman Ropati Pitoitua, and he'll probably wind up in a rotation with Aaron Johnson and Odell Howard. End Adam Braidwood is strong enough to take some shifts inside. Otherwise, Braidwood will be joined at end by Mkristo Bruce. They'll be hard-pressed to duplicate the 20 sacks D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown combined for a year ago.
The spring's grand experiment saw Will Derting move from the outside to middle linebacker. "I like it," said Derting, an All-Pac-10 performer on the outside. "They can't run away from you as much and I really like being in the middle of all the action."
The Cougars have produced four first-team All-Pac-10 defensive backs in the past three years, and if that streak is going to continue it'll take a premium year from the lone leftover starter, cornerback Karl Paymah. Safeties Hamza Abdullah and Jeremy Bohannon have paid their dues in nickel packages and on special teams.
SpecialistsThere are few punters in the country as effective as junior Kyle Basler, the defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl victory after pinning Texas inside its 5-yard line four times. And as a former high school quarterback, he's a reasonable threat to run or pass.
The Cougs lost their all-time leading scorer, placekicker Drew Dunning, and understudy Graham Siderius has so far been wildly inconsistent. Freshman Loren Langley will get a look.
WSU must also replace return specialist Sammy Moore -- receivers Murray and Hill the likely candidates.
Final AnalysisThe Cougars are talented enough to post a fourth straight winning season for the first time in almost 70 years -- but possibly too inexperienced to pull it off. At quarterback and at receiver, the Cougars must grow up in a hurry; this team may be able to run the ball very well, if defenses are kept honest.
Likewise, the Cougars are substantially untested at two crucial defensive spots -- tackle and cornerback. But they do have youngsters who can grow into those jobs, provided they get stronger and stay healthy.