In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 64 Washington State
Washington State has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons. In a century of football, the program has never won at least eight games in four consecutive seasons. Following the losses of Luke Falk, Hercules Mata'afa and Alex Grinch, among others, a lot needs to go right in order to make that happen — even with a semi-favorable schedule.
2017 Record: 9-4 (6-3, Pac-12)
Washington State tied their highest win total and had their first AP top-10 ranking since 2003. The offense was occasionally unstoppable, Luke Falk finished a legendary career with 30 more touchdowns and 3,500 more yards and they were ranked in all six editions of the College Football Playoff rankings.
It should've been great. It wasn't.
It felt like a major missed opportunity for one of the most talented teams in the country who took big strides defensively and rolled through the first half of the season.
Head Coach: Mike Leach (7th Year, 38-38)
Aside from landing a blue-chip recruit or grad transfer, it's never good for a coach to make national headlines in June. Mike Leach's plan to "discuss and exchange ideas" on Twitter by tweeting misinformation — followed by an odd prove-it defense — didn't go well and he and Washington State are now facing non-raccoon questions about his off-the-field behavior.
There's no indication that the tweet put him anywhere near the hot seat but it's hard not to wonder if a tough season or two would get the snowball rolling.
QB Luke Falk, RB Jamal Morrow, WR Tavares Martin Jr., WR Isaiah Johnson-Mack, DL Hercules Mata'afa, LB Frankie Luvu
Luke Falk is the big one, although — and I'll be careful with this — a lot of quarterbacks can do what he did in Leach's system last year (heavy on screens and tons of checkdowns). But when combined with the losses of all-purpose back Jamal Morrow and reliable targets Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (transfer to Duquesne), the Cougars' offense took major hits.
Alex Grinch is the biggest defensive loss but losing Hercules Mata'afa to the NFL one year early was a huge blow. He was dominating last year, racking up 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Trey Tinsley, QB Anthony Gordon, RB James Williams, WR Kyle Sweet, WR Renard Bell, OT Andre Dillard, C Fred Mauigoa
The Washington State offense was good but it labored through large periods of inconsistency and inability to have gains of 10, 15 or 20-plus yards. Their scoring margin dipped more than seven points from 2016 (30.2, down 37.8) and they barely averaged five points in the first quarter, down from nearly seven in 2016.
While the competition to replace Luke Falk will carry into fall camp, it's at least a little less crowded than it was at the start of spring practice when five players were vying for the job. Redshirt junior Trey Tinsley looked the best early but fellow redshirt junior Anthony Gordon showed a lot potential later in spring practice. (East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew will also compete in the fall.)
Both players — both former JUCO transfers who arrived in 2016, redshirted their first year and didn't attempt a pass last year — played well in the spring game.
"Both of them play like they have a chip on their shoulder,” senior receiver Kyle Sweet said. “And they should — they’re coming and taking over the offense. We don’t have any hiccups.”
Sweet is their most experienced receiver and the only returning receiver who had more than 40 receptions last year but running back James Williams (below) was Falk's favorite target, though most of Williams' value as a receiver came on shovel passes and screens. He's also averaged five yards per carry over the last two years.
A mediocre offensive line lost three starters and has a new coach in Mason Miler, a former lower-division coach who coached Nevada's offensive line in 2017. Andre Dillard — who will be making an upcoming appearance in the HERO Sports Best Player for Each Jersey Number — an all-conference tackle and potential 2019 first-round draft pick.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Nnamdi Oguayo, LB Jahad Woods, LB Peyton Pelluer, NB Hunter Dale, CB Marcus Strong, S Jalen Thompson, S Darrien Molton,
Some of Washington State's defensive numbers worsened slightly from 2016, among them yards per rush (4.1 to 4.3), but they were much better in several areas, including passer rating (130.1 to 111.4), sack percentage (4.3 to 9.1) and takeaways per game (1.8 to 2.2).
The bad news: Coordinator Alex Grinch is gone, as are some key players, namely Hercules Mata'afa and Frankie Luvu. The good news: Leach hired Tracy Claeys, who worked magic with Minnesota's unit, and they return eight starters and loads of youngsters ready for bigger roles.
“Alex kind of developed on the job and of course Tracy’s a guy that’s got a lot of experience and a lot of dimension,” Leach said in March. “He’s got a bigger body of work.”
The body of work includes conforming his schemes to personnel, and since the current personnel played well in Grinch's attacking system, Claeys won't change much initially. They'll still primarily run a 4-2-5 and rely on speed at nearly every position, including linebacker, where sophomore Jahad Woods (below) leads the team's best position group.
Woods, built more like a strong safety (6-foot, 220 pounds) than a linebacker, started the final 10 games and finished third on the Cougars with 11 tackles for loss. Selfishly, I'd love to see Claeys give Woods more freedom because it'd be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Nnamdi Oguayo is their top pass-rusher after Mata'afa's departure, though it was an interesting spring for him. Claeys shoved him onto the third team to, as Theo Lawson of The Spokesman-Review put it, "see how he’d respond." The junior responded and appears primed for a breakout year.
A big reason Washington State ranked among the nation's best in takeways and third-down defense was an aggressive secondary that remained mostly intact and is led by junior safety Jalen Thompson. He's a sound tackler but also leads the Pac-12's returning defensive backs with a 51.5 passer rating when targeted in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus.
QB Gardner Minshew, RB Max Borghi, WR Rodrick Fisher, OT Abraham Lucas, NB Isaiah Love
In February, East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew said he'd transfer to Alabama for his final season before backtracking and picking Washington State a month later. The coaching staff hasn't spoken of Minshew, who had 2,140 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year (he attempted a Leach-like 68 passes in one game last year) but he will have a shot at the starting job in fall camp.
Max Borghi was a three-star member of their 2018 class and enrolled early. Like James Williams, he's a quick all-purpose back capable of catching the ball out of the backfield or split out as a receiver. His coaches and teammates couldn't stop gushing over his work in the spring.
"That kid’s a freak, just to be honest with you," Andre Dillard said.
Elsewhere, true freshman receiver Rodrick Fisher is in line for immediate playing time at the X spot. Redshirt freshman Abraham Lucas has run with the first team since the first week of camp and, barring something surprising, in fall camp, will open the season as the starting right tackle. Another redshirt freshman, nickel back Isaiah Love, will play a lot.
After opening last season with five consecutive home games (seriously, they didn't play a road game until Oct. 7!), Washington State hits the road in Week 1 for the second half of a home-and-home series that began with a Cougars' win in Pullman in 2015.
Four of their final six games are at home, including three of the final four.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||at Wyoming|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||vs. San Jose State|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. Eastern Washington|
|Friday, Sept. 21||at USC|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||vs. Utah|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||at Oregon State|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||vs. Oregon|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||at Stanford|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||vs. Cal|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||at Colorado|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. Arizona|
|Friday, Nov. 23||vs. Washington|