The mini Pac-12 season is upon us, and the Cougars will try to defy preseason expectations, having been picked last in the Pac-12 North. Here are five keys to their season.

Win the opener

The Cougars’ most winnable game, on paper, could be the season opener Saturday at Oregon State. With just a six-game regular season, the importance of every game is magnified, and the opener could really set the tone for the Cougars.

A victory over the Beavers, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North, would give WSU a big boost in confidence as it heads into what appears to be much tougher matchup against Oregon. A victory would be an instant boost for new quarterback, a new coach and new schemes, and the Cougars could “get on a roll” like coach Nick Rolovich is hoping for.

But if the Cougars lose to Oregon State a win could be tough to come by, as it seems likely they would be underdogs in the rest of their games.

Develop a quarterback

Freshman Jayden de Laura will start at quarterback for WSU in the season opener after beating out redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz. The competition was tight so it’s very possible Cooper and Cruz will get a chance if de Laura struggles.

Mistakes will be inevitable because none of the three contenders has taken a college snap. All three seem talented, but it would be a good thing for the Cougars if one of them emerges, not only as the quarterback of the present but as the quarterback of the future.

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For the first time since 2017, the Cougars figure to have a returning starting quarterback next season. The experience that player gets this year will be invaluable.

Borghi, Borghi, Borghi

Max Borghi, the junior running back, seems primed for a huge season. Even in coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, when the only running plays were audibles — he found a way to rush for 817 yards last season.

Would not be surprised if he reached that number this season, in fewer than half the games. And he should remain a reliable pass-catcher as well after catching 86 passes last season.

If the Cougars outplay their expectations, it might be because Borghi was really, really good.

Stop the run

Perhaps the biggest reason the Cougars had a disappointing 6-7 record last season was their inability to stop other teams from running. They allowed a Pac-12-worst 185.5 rushing yards per game and a Pac-12-worst 4.9 yards per carry.

Air Force rushed for 371 of its 401 yards in its 31-21 win over WSU in the Cheez-It Bowl last year. The Cougars seemed helpless against the ground assault, even though they knew it was coming.

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Maybe the 4-2-5 defensive look that new WSU coordinator Jake Dickert will utilize will make a difference. It will be fun to see how the Cougars adapt to the run-and-shoot offense that Rolovich has brought to Pullman, but stopping opponents from running might be even a bigger key to success.

Stay healthy

This is important every year, but the COVID-19 pandemic adds a new wrinkle. Rolovich said it’s easier to keep everyone on the depth chart focused, because one outbreak of the virus could mean someone at the bottom of the depth could suddenly be starting.

Here’s hoping that all the schools in the Pac-12, who are tested daily for the virus, can avoid the outbreaks that have affected other teams across the country.