As a rule, college football teams strive to excel. The trouble for Washington State is that excellence is not a word most fans or players are accustomed to hearing.
Destroyed, yes. Overwhelmed, certainly. Outmatched, out-played, and dominated are all common refrains after consecutive drubbings—to the tune of 69-0 and 58-0—at the hands of league foes. Last year, a double-overtime win against rival Washington in Pullman was all first-year head coach Paul Wulff needed to placate rabid fans. This year, the bar's been raised a bit higher.
Though there are no realistic expectations of excellence, even managing a "par" rating could hinge on being successful right out of the gate. The Cougars' slate has them matching up against some heavy teams pretty early on, so the first three games—a homestand, no less—could prove crucial.
WSU's season opener has them lining up Sept. 5 across from Stanford, a team that's something of an enigma going into the season. After underperforming en route to a 5-7 record last year, general consensus seems to be that Stanford is on an upswing, despite the fact the Cardinal still hasn't locked in on a quarterback for the season opener. It'll be a slog, but WSU teams in the past few years haven't been known for their tenacity out of the gate. A bad start here looms large.
Hawaii rolls into town to face the Cougars in the annual home game held at Qwest Field on Sept. 12. They return nine starters on offense and only two on defense. Though they're still trying to find the sweet spot for their run-and-gun offense, the Warriors squeaked out a bid to the Hawaii Bowl last year with junior college transfer Greg Alexander learning the system as he went along. Expect a stunning aerial attack, one that the Cougars will have to stifle if they hope to gain any traction.
The three-game "homestand" wraps up on Sept. 19 against Southern Methodist University. This should be a cupcake for the Cougars but, as Portland State proved last year by knocking out the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart, that's anything but guaranteed.
Though the game ultimately proved something of a blessing in disguise by exposing the (talented Marshall Lobbestael, one hopes the linemen can better protect against the quarterback against the fearsome No. 118-ranked Mustangs. SMU is the only opponent—other than the Huskies, natch—possessing a worse ranking than WSU; a loss here signifies a lot more than deserved humiliation at losing to an slightly inferior program.
The schedule only gets worse for the Cougars after the first three, as they're followed in quick succession by No. 3 USC and No. 10 Oregon, with California and Oregon State lurking not too far behind. Getting off to a less-than-stellar start could eliminate any semblance of the confidence a 2-11 team is going to need to compete in the Pac-10, and provide a gloomy outlook for the rest of the Paul Wulff era.