Forgive me, Coug Nation, if I’m misrepresenting you. It’s just that I’ve always felt the Washington State experience was unique compared to that of the other Pac-12 schools.

And I’m not talking about what happens between the lines in the sports world — I’m talking about the sense of community brought on by its seclusion in Pullman.

WSU isn’t in a metropolis like the Bay Area schools, Los Angeles schools, Washington, Arizona State or Utah. It’s not a reasonably quick drive to a state’s big city like Oregon, Oregon State, Colorado or Arizona.

It’s all by itself — away from the commotion. That isolation is good for the student body … but could be very bad for the football program.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

The Washington Huskies prepare for the 2022 campaign. 

Players included are quarterbacks Sam Huard, Michael Penix Jr. and Dylan Morris; and DE Zion Tupuala-Fetui. 221261

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The year’s biggest shock wave to the West Coast sports scene came earlier this summer, when USC and UCLA declared they’d be leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten by 2024. The announcement sparked waves of uncertainty regarding the future of the Pac-12 and its schools; waves that will continue for some time.

Nobody, no really — nobody, knows what will transpire in terms of realignment over the next few years. But the big fear among the less prestigious programs is that college football is heading toward an era of super conferences, which will primarily comprise traditional powers and big-market universities.

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In other words, the Cougars could easily be left out. Unless they start winning. Now.

Excuse the long-winded intro, but it was necessary to underscore how much the stakes have changed for Washington State. Starting this season, the Cougars might very well be playing for relevance over the next couple of decades.

The assumption is that schools such as Oregon and Washington — which have rich histories along with trips to the College Football Playoff in the past decade — will be secure in calling a powerful conference home. But the Cougars are likely auditioning for a spot that will require a litany of wins lest they get relegated to a league like the Mountain West.

So are they equipped to pile up the victories? Well, it doesn’t look all that rosy for the time being. Despite having reached six consecutive bowl games (excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season), and winning their first Apple Cup since 2012 last year, WSU has some Randy’s Donuts-sized holes.

Picked to finish seventh in the conference by the Pac-12 media, the Cougars lost a slew of key offensive players from last year, including quarterback Jayden de Laura (transferred to Arizona), running back Max Borghi (waived by the Steelers on Tuesday) and three starting offensive linemen, one of who is the Seahawks’ Abe Lucas.

They retained more players on defense but are without cornerback Jaylen Watson, who went to the Chiefs in the seventh round of the NFL draft.
This doesn’t mean the Cougars are without talent — or at least potential talent.

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Sophomore quarterback Cam Ward transferred to WSU after earning FCS All-American honors at the University of the Incarnate Word, where he ran the Air Raid offense under new Washington State offensive coordinator Eric Morris.

And though the Cougars might not be returning any running backs who had more than 34 carries for them last season (Nakia Watson), Ward has dynamic targets in receivers De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie.

And on the other side of the ball sit edge rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, who tallied five and 4.5 sacks, respectively, for the Cougars last season, with Stone adding 11.5 tackles for a loss en route to becoming a first-team all Pac-12 selection.

But the principal driver in all this is head coach Jake Dickert, who took over as interim coach last year after Nick Rolovich was fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. Dickert then won three of his last four regular-season games to shed the interim tag.

This is his time to leave his mark. This season is his opportunity to mold this ostensibly mediocre team into a Pac-12 power that won at least nine games three times from 2015-2018 — including 11 in ’18.

The Cougars regularly exceeded preseason expectations during that stretch; the only hurdle being Washington at the end of the season — a hurdle Dickert and Co. cleared in their first attempt via a 40-13 smackdown last year.

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But if Washington State falters this season, it could be the start of a descent that exiles the program into a mid-major conference and deprives its fans of opportunities to witness seismic victories (see: USC in 2017, aka the Woodstock Game).

Few, if any Coug die-hards want this. Winning is what prevents it. Winning a lot.

On Saturday, Washington State hosts Idaho in its 2022 opener. It’s not just the start of a season for the Cougars — it’s the start of a showcase they hope will spawn many more meaningful seasons down the road.