As of now, Washington State still has nine dates on its 2020 football calendar – down three from last week when the Pac-12 eliminated nonconference schedules for each of its members. How quickly those original 12 could shrink to six, or zero, is anyone’s guess.
Even with things looking bleaker by the day, there’s still some promise of a college football season beginning in the next few months. In May, our cross-state neighbors at The Seattle Times analyzed Washington’s regular-season slate, ranking the Huskies’ original 12 games for least intriguing to most intriguing.
Now that Utah State, Houston and Idaho are out of the mix, we analyzed Washington State’s remaining slate, ranking the Cougars’ nine games from least intriguing to most intriguing and detailing why you should care about each.
9. Colorado, Nov. 7, in Boulder: Just about everyone in the Pac-12 will be happy to see a new face at quarterback for Colorado — perhaps with the exception of WSU. Big, strong-armed Steven Montez is now a free agent with the NFL’s Washington franchise, but the Cougars might not have minded a fifth year of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound signal-caller. In three starts against WSU, he never threw a touchdown and completed 40 of 78 passes for just 348 yards. The Buffaloes not only replace Montez but electric receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., whom all 11 Pac-12 teams are happy to see go — no exceptions.
Regardless of whether Max Borghi leaves for the NFL after his junior season, the early November affair at Folsom Field will be his second and final game in his home state of Colorado, against the team to which he was once committed. He scored and had 72 all-purpose yards in his initial homecoming.
8. Utah, Oct. 10, at Martin Stadium: Utah’s entire defense was drafted by the NFL in April, or so it seemed. In truth, the Utes lost ONLY seven players to the NFL — six on the defensive side, the other being workhorse running back Zack Moss. Whoever wins WSU’s starting QB job will be glad not to see players named Fotu, Anae or Penisini lined up on Utah’s defensive line, but if Kyle Whittingham has proven anything, it’s that his cupboard is never completely bare.
Still, the Utes have lots to replace, and Whittingham will count on South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley — whose injury in 2019 vaulted Ryan Hilinski into the Gamecocks’ No. 1 role — to replace Tyler Huntley. The Cougars might be underdogs, but not like they were last year, and chances are this game won’t be played in driving wind, rain and thunderstorms.
7. Stanford, Oct. 17, in Palo Alto: Stanford’s starting QB and WSU’s former coach left for the same place this offseason, though the former is undoubtedly more replaceable. With K.J. Costello transferring to Mississippi State, the Cardinal will probably hand the keys to Davis Mills, who acquainted himself with the Cougar faithful last season by setting Stanford’s single-game record and throwing for 504 yards in a 49-22 loss at Martin Stadium.
Surely, that game still stings for Mills, and if the Cardinal is looking to draw any additional motivation, David Shaw hasn’t defeated the Cougars since a semi-prominent NFL star named Christian McCaffrey was his running back. If it helps, Stanford, which is often synonymous with small home crowds, might be the fastest school in the Pac-12 to adapt to COVID-19 seating limitations.
6. Cal, Oct. 3, at Martin Stadium: If college football still has the green light when preseason conference predictions are unveiled, don’t be shocked to see Cal collect a few first-place votes. The Golden Bears were labeled the “most undervalued” team in the Pac-12 by CBSSports.com and they’re who Nick Rolovich faces in his home opener as WSU coach.
It’s easy to focus on what Cal lost — linebacker Evan Weaver and safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins were all NFL draft picks — but the Golden Bears will bring back 18 starters, including Chase Garbers, who has a 13-2 career record as Justin Wilcox’s starter.
Strange things tend to happen when the Cougars and Golden Bears clash, and there was a major officiating snafu in last year’s meeting. In other words, Cal-WSU is always worth watching.
5. Arizona State, Oct. 31, at Martin Stadium: The only thing spookier than a half-empty stadium on Halloween night might be the dual-threat tendencies of Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels, whose 17-yard touchdown dash sealed a 38-34 win for the Sun Devils over the Cougars last season in Tempe. Daniels, one of the nation’s most gifted young QBs, will have to adjust to life without receiver Brandon Aiyuk and running back Eno Benjamin, who’ve left for the NFL, but there’s few doubting Herm Edwards, who’s an impressive 15-11 with two bowl appearances in his first two seasons at ASU.
Last year’s ending left a sour taste for the Cougars, and they should be well-acquainted with their new schemes by the time game No. 8 rolls around.
4. UCLA, Nov. 14, in Pasadena: A handful of WSU players who grew up close to the Rose Bowl will have an opportunity to play in the historic venue for the first time, but that obviously won’t be the main source of motivation for the Cougars entering this mid-November matchup in Pasadena. WSU’s 2019 season began to spiral after a 67-63 loss to UCLA in which the Cougars conceded 50 points in the second half and allowed the Bruins to erase a 32-point deficit, despite Anthony Gordon tossing a Pac-12-record nine touchdown passes.
In the short term, Leach urged the Cougars to wipe the game from their memory, but it’s hard to imagine the mere sight of UCLA’s baby blue won’t evoke thoughts of last season’s Pac-12 opener — one of the most impressive comebacks, and at the same time biggest letdowns, in college-football history.
3. Oregon, Nov. 21, Martin Stadium: In what was considered a down year for WSU, the Cougars still managed to make things tough for an Oregon team that wound up with the Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl trophies at the end of the season. Both teams are resetting at the QB position, but have dynamic running backs — Borghi and CJ Verdell — who could carry much of the offensive load in 2020.
The Ducks had lost four in a row before edging the Cougars in Eugene last season, but it’s been six years since Oregon’s last win at Martin Stadium. Coach Mario Cristobal’s last trip to Pullman was a nightmare — and simultaneously one of the most iconic days in WSU football history.
It might feel strange to see the Cougars and Ducks play this late in the season. Their last November meeting came in 2002, and never have the Northwest rivals played a game later than Nov. 15.
2. Oregon State, Sept. 26, in Corvallis: Normally, the annual matchup with Oregon State wouldn’t be so high on the list, or supersede the game against Oregon, but it’s hard to ignore the plethora of storylines this year’s game should bring. For starters, it’ll be Rolovich’s first Pac-12 game, and against a team he’s more than familiar with. While he was at Hawaii, Rolovich accused the Beavers of tampering when multiple OSU recruiting letters addressed to current Hawaii players showed up in Honolulu. A few of Rolovich’s ex-Hawaii coaches are now on staff at OSU, and former WSU defensive back Myles Green-Richard will have a chance to crack the Beavers’ depth chart this season and make an impact against his former team.
Don’t forget about the 2018 version of this game. The Cougars needed a last-ditch touchdown run from Borghi to win 54-53 and stamp their bowl ticket, while denying five-win OSU the same opportunity. That might sting for the Beavers, who whiffed on their best chance to end what’s now a six-game skid against the Cougars.
Since both teams lost starting quarterbacks to the NFL, the two All-Pac-12 running backs — WSU’s Borghi and OSU’s Jermar Jefferson — could steal the show in Corvallis.
1. Washington, Nov. 27, at Martin Stadium: The old tact of barely acknowledging the intrastate rivalry is replaced by the new tact of counting down the days, hours and minutes until the Apple Cup. When Rolovich was introduced as WSU’s coach in January, this was his response to a query about the rivalry game: “Two words: Apple Cup. Three numbers: 317. That’s how many days until we get to play it.”
So, after years of taking a mostly nonchalant approach to the Apple Cup, the coaches and players will value it as much as the fans, and with both programs making changes at the top, the game itself could look different than it has in years past — something that should conceivably favor the Cougars, who’ve lost seven in a row by an average margin of 21.2 points.
Even with UW making a change at quarterback, the Huskies promise to be one of the most talented teams in the Pac-12 — on paper, at least — and the game comes six days after WSU’s game against an Oregon team that will be expected to win the conference.
The only saving grace for the Cougars might be that both games are at home, although that may not be the same advantage it was pre-COVID-19.