College football Saturdays may start the same for many Washington State fans this fall – ESPN College GameDay, morning coffee and hours of channel surfing through the SEC, ACC and Big-12 – but it’s certain they won’t end like they normally do.
Without Pac-12 football, and therefore Cougar football, WSU fans are bracing for a fall unlike any they’ve seen. It may not be one devoid of college football altogether, but for some, it’s devoid of the only college football that matters.
Head coach Nick Rolovich’s first season in the Pac-12 will be put on hold, but some WSU fans may still need to scratch their college football itch this fall. For those still tuning in, here are 10 games with WSU connections (some more prevalent than others) to keep an eye on this fall, and reasons to watch each.
Mississippi State at No. 6 LSU, Sept. 26 - If there’s one team WSU fans will be inclined to keep track of this season, it’s sure to be Mississippi State, where a familiar coach and a familiar offensive system take on an unfamiliar and hugely talented Southeastern Conference. Because Mike Leach is still such an important figure on the Palouse, and because the Bulldogs have one of the country’s toughest slates, we have Mississippi State on here four times.
The opener in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against Ed Orgeron and the defending national champions is must-see TV. The Tigers will look different without quarterback Joe Burrow, and now top receiver Ja’Marr Chase who’s opted out, but you could make the argument LSU, ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25, is the best football team Leach has faced in 19 years as a head coach.
Central Arkansas at North Dakota State, Oct. 3 - We’ll get to the WSU ties near the bottom, and admittedly they’re a bit of a stretch, but this is a captivating game nonetheless, and will be a priority for FCS-starved fans who won’t get their fix this season. This early-October matchup is the only game of the season for the Bison, who’ve missed out on just one FCS championship since 2010 and would’ve been poised to win their fourth consecutive with Trey Lance, a potential first-round draft pick, at quarterback.
The game against Central Arkansas is being billed as a showcase for Lance, who could either see his NFL stock soar or plummet depending on how he fares. The Cougars’ new defensive coordinator, Jake Dickert, worked in Fargo for three years (2008-10), and NDSU is the alma mater for edge coach AJ Cooper, who was a tight end for the Bison, and cornerback coach John Richardson, who was a two-year starter at corner. Cooper and Richardson also coached at NDSU.
Mississippi State at No. 3 Alabama, Oct. 31 - Leach’s team would have loved to get its feet wet against New Mexico, North Carolina State and Tulane. Instead: at No. 4 LSU, vs. Arkansas, at Kentucky (receiving votes), vs. No. 13 Texas A&M and at No. 3 Alabama. Leach has orchestrated some of the country’s most potent passing offenses for nearly two decades, but his Air Raid often struggled to produce against the Pac-12’s most formidable defenses – namely Washington and California. Credit to the Huskies and Golden Bears, but neither hold a candle to Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
By Halloween, the Bulldogs will have ironed out a few of their offensive kinks. While it’s true Leach has never faced a Saban defense, Saban hasn’t seen a lot of Air Raid during his tenure in the SEC.
Alabama should have the edge almost everywhere on the field, but don’t overlook the fact that MSU is much more experienced at QB, if KJ Costello wins the job in Starkville. The game will feature two of the conference’s, and country’s, top running backs in MSU’s Kylin Hill and Alabama’s Najee Harris.
Houston at BYU, Oct. 16 - There are a few reasons for WSU fans to tune in, beyond the fact that all three schools share a common mascot. From WSU’s original schedule, Houston is the only team still playing a fall season. This game gives WSU fans a chance to see the team they would’ve hosted in Pullman on Oct. 12. Houston wasn’t on the schedule beyond 2020, so it’s possible we won’t see Coogs-Cougs again anytime in the near future.
That may not sell this game to WSU fans, but this might. If WSU doesn’t play a spring football season, Rolovich’s third game in Pullman will come next fall against BYU. Leach’s tenure at WSU also opened at BYU. The Oct. 23, 2021, game pitting Rolovich’s Cougars against Kalani Sitake’s Cougars should be the highlight of WSU’s 2021 nonconference schedule. This Oct. 16 matchup against UH will offer an early glimpse of a BYU team that’s won 27 games the past four seasons.
South Carolina at No. 6 LSU, Oct. 24 - I took a special interest in South Carolina football games two games into the 2019 season, as I’m sure many WSU fans did, when Ryan Hilinski was thrust into the starting role after the injury to Jake Bentley, who’s now at Utah. I vividly remember watching South Carolina’s double-overtime upset win over No. 3 Georgia from the press box in Tempe, Arizona, a couple of hours before WSU played Arizona State, and pumping a fist every time Hilinski moved the chains.
Maybe that’s a violation of the “no cheering in the press box” rule, but’s hard to fault anyone rooting for Hilinski or his story. What he did for the Gamecocks on the field as a true freshman was admirable, but even more admirable is the work he’s done to promote mental health awareness since the death of his older brother, and ex-WSU QB, Tyler Hilinski.
Taking on a starting job in the SEC as a freshman is lots of pressure as is, but Ryan’s put more on his shoulders by speaking to various groups on campus, and around the country, about mental health while promoting his family’s nonprofit “Hilinski’s Hope” foundation. It’s impressive, but not surprising, how well the young QB has been able to handle it. Hilinski is the full-time starter in Columbia now and Oct. 24, against Orgeron’s Tigers, will no doubt be a marquee game.
No. 1 Clemson at No. 10 Notre Dame, Nov. 7 - The name Ian Book hasn’t been important to WSU fans for years – not since the former three-star recruit out of California decommitted from the Cougars in August 2015 and subsequently signed with Brian Kelly and Notre Dame.
Book has had bounds of success with the Irish and the Cougars have fared just fine at QB, producing the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader (Luke Falk) and consecutive QBs who set the conference’s single-season passing mark (Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon). Still, imagining Book at WSU as a three- or four-year starter is an interesting thought exercise. Do the Cougars cycle through three starters in three years if he’s there? And what does Leach’s Air Raid look like with Book’s mobility? The California native is one of the country’s most dynamic QBs as a senior and he’ll face the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite, Trevor Lawrence, in this early-November “ACC” meeting.
Aside from the Book/WSU angle, this should easily be one of the top-five college football games on the 2020 schedule. If both teams can make it through the first seven games unbeaten, it should have plenty of CFP ramifications.
No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 15 Oklahoma State, Nov. 21 - In 2017, it may have been frightening to think three years down the road that Alex Grinch would face Tay Martin in a game that didn’t involve Washington State. If the college football season can overcome all the hurdles that are sure to prop up by the third week of November, Cougar fans can tune in to watch their former hotshot defensive coordinator square up with one of the most productive outside receivers of the Leach era, in the Bedlam Series. Of course, that’s pending Martin gaining immediate eligibility. Coming off a CFB semifinal appearance, the Sooners are ranked No. 5 in the preseason AP poll and the Cowboys are sitting at No. 15. Despite closing the 2019 season with a 63-28 dud against invincible LSU, Oklahoma took big strides on defense in Grinch’s first year. In other words, the Sooners actually played defense last season.
The Cowboys were already projected to be explosive on offense with the backfield of quarterback Spencer Sanders and All-American running back Chuba Hubbard. We’ll see how much Martin is used in Mike Gundy’s run-first system, but one way or the other, he should have an opportunity to add to OSU’s offensive riches.
No. 23 Iowa State at No. 14 Texas, Nov. 28 - As far as we can tell, there’s nobody on either team with a direct tie to the Cougars, but WSU fans are plenty familiar with Matt Campbell, Iowa State and Brock Purdy after edging the Cyclones 28-26 in the 2018 Alamo Bowl, cementing the program’s historic 11-win season. Purdy, now a junior, is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in the Big 12, and one of the reasons the Cyclones are ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25 to open the year. The other QB in this game, Sam Ehlinger, is even more impressive and was picked preseason All-Big 12 first team by media members.
This post-Thanksgiving affair in Austin should be a top-five Big 12 game this fall, and could be important for the Longhorns if they can knock off their other ranked foes, Oklahoma and OSU, in October.
Mississippi State at No. 4 Georgia, Nov. 21 - In an alternate world, this could’ve been the first meeting between Leach and Jacob Eason, the QB he once recruited out of Lake Stevens (Washington) High. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 4, meaning this game will be Leach’s fifth against a top-15 preseason team. If Leach can pull out a win in even one of those, year No. 1 with “the Pirate” may be considered a success.
It will be interesting to look forward Leach’s midweek commentary about UGA’s live mascot, but another added wrinkle is that former USC QB JT Daniels appears as if he’ll be the Bulldogs’ Week 1 starter with Jamie Newman’s decision to opt out. Daniels’ only start against WSU came in a game most Cougar fans prefer not to relive, so maybe they’ll just skip this one altogether.
Mississippi State at Ole Miss, Nov. 28 - Leach and Lane Kiffin’s pregame news conferences might be better to recommend than the Egg Bowl itself. Nonetheless, when the Bulldogs and Rebels made their respective hires this offseason, most people’s minds turned immediately to this game.
The obvious WSU connection here is Leach, but some fans will remember the Cougars stunning a Kiffin-led USC team 10-7 in September 2013, during Leach’s second season in Pullman. Chants of “Fire Kiffin” rang through the Coliseum toward the end of the game and Trojans fans got their wish nearly three weeks later, when the coach was officially terminated at Los Angeles International Airport.
The coaches have enough personality to carry this game on its own, but by Nov. 28, we should also have a better idea of which one is leading a more successful rebuild. Also, if Leach wants to squash the notion of his approach toward in-state rivalry games (see Washington 2013-19), this is as good a chance as any.
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