5. Utah Utes
Who will be the 5th best team in the Pac-12 North?
Answer: The Washington State Cougars
Predicted Record: 4-8
The problem with the likes of the Colorado Buffaloes, the California Golden Bears, the Utah Utes and the Washington State Cougars is, though each team is doing what they need to do to rebuild, develop and get better, the teams ahead of them are also getting better. Though the Cougars will have 17 returning starters under second year head coach Mike Leach, it is very hard to see a scenario where WSU somehow falls ahead of the likes of Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington.
The first problem the Cougars face this year is establishing a proven quarterback in an offense that is heavily pass dependent. It looks as though Connor Halliday will lead the way this year, but he has quite a bit of work to do. Last season, Halliday threw only two more touchdowns than he did interceptions (15 to 13) and had a completion percentage of only 52%. He averaged 208 passing yards a game, or over 100 yards less than the team’s average. To make matters worse, Halliday will not have his best target to throw to, as last season’s leading receiver (Marquess Wilson) quit the team under peculiar circumstances. There is a substantial amount of young talent in the receiving corps, but establishing those connections may take longer than WSU can afford.
With the passing game still in development, the Cougars will also need to step up their rushing game substantially, which was one of the worst in the nation last year. Washington State averaged 29 yards per game, their two running backs combining for 585 total season yards. Rumor has it WSU is throwing in a little pistol offense into the mix, but I can’t imagine implementing a new system to booster the running game will take off overnight.
One strength to look at this year and that could keep the Cougars in some games is their defense. Though WSU gave up over 425 yards per game, they were also on the field a lot. The Cougars return six of their top seven defenders, including Deone Bucannon, a beast in the secondary who will cause problems everywhere. They also return a handful of linebackers and linemen capable of putting pressure on opponents in the backfield.