In a matter of weeks last fall Mike Price, whose Cougars hadn't had a winning season since 1997, went from a man on the hot seat to Pac-10 coach of the year. Washington State stunned just about everyone in college football by jumping to a 7-0 start en route to a 10-2 record. A year later, with 12 returning starters, it's no surprise that the Cougars are shaping up as the best team in the conference.
Eager to prove that it's not a one-year wonder, Washington State has many reasons to be optimistic. For one, seven starters, led by senior quarterback Jason Gesser (3,010 yards, 26 touchdowns), are back from an offense that averaged 35 points per game. For another, the Cougars have a pair of top-flight defensive stoppers in junior ends D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown.
Once a weakness, defense has become a strength for Washington State. When his unit was beset with injuries and academic casualties two years ago, defensive coordinator Bill Doba was forced to play 11 underclassmen. "You don't win with freshmen," Doba says, "but we just didn't have anybody else." The Cougars had the best secondary in the Pac-10 a year ago (26 interceptions), and that gave the young defensive line a chance to mature. This season, with Acholonu and Brown stepping up, Doba hopes the line will stabilize the defense until the young linebackers get comfortable. Doba has high hopes for junior linebacker Ira Davis, who showed flashes of brilliance in limited action last season.
Somebody else likes the Cougars' long-range prospects: ABC Sports asked Washington State and UCLA to move their Nov. 16 game to a featured time slot on Dec. 7, the last weekend of the regular season. "People don't look at Washington State the same way they do Nebraska or Florida State," Brown says. "When I think of them, I think of winning, great coaches and great athletes. We can have the same thing at Washington State."