Saturday’s game will tell us if the hype is real

Preseason hype and rankings could prove irrelevant if Cougs' don't come to play

BRADEN JOHNSON, Evergreen sports columnist

A “Game of Thrones” follower and resident of Texas for nearly a decade, WSU Head Coach Mike Leach was not solely preoccupied with the Cougar’s season-opening game versus Montana State heading into kickoff.

Leach was fairly noncommittal about the HBO season finale Sunday, describing it as “the same as the last one.” The Cody, Wyoming, native instead offered a message to the residents of Houston as it recovers from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“I know a ton of people in Houston and it’s a really tragic event,” he said. “We certainly send them all of our prayers as far as them fighting through it and persevering. Houston is one of the nicest cities I’ve ever been in. It’s tough times now, but better times ahead.”

The point is, the sixth-year head coach did not paint the picture of a man fretting over his 0-5 record in season-opening games with WSU. He didn’t worry about how his team is set to handle the heightened expectations that come with earning a preseason ranking in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time in 15 years.
When asked about whether his week one struggles in Pullman are weighing on him, Leach hardly offered a response.

“I’m just worried about preparation,” he said.

It’s an effective summarizer of the pulse around this program right now as it takes a third crack in as many years at knocking off a Big Sky Conference opponent to open the season. There’s a cautious sense of optimism that, as the team transforms from the hunter to the hunted, expectations and reality will align, beginning Saturday.

As freshman who were more heralded as recruits than their predecessors dot the second and third string roster spots on the team’s week one depth chart, there’s an intriguing mix of experience and raw talent on both sides of the ball.

Mostly positive spring and fall camps channeled themselves into a No. 24 overall preseason ranking. Throw in a redshirt senior quarterback, primed to break through Pac-12 passing records entering his third full season as a starter, in Luke Falk. The excitement is matched by capable personnel.

Still, a 45-point, 606-yard pasting at the hands of Eastern Washington in 2016 prompts acknowledgement of just how little the AP preseason top-25 poll really means.

For as much hope as WSU’s eight-game midseason winning streak instilled in the program, it’s impossible to look past the beat down the team took from No. 5 University of Washington to close the regular season and how discombobulated the program culture appeared in the Holiday Bowl. The Cougs lost to a Minnesota team that promptly fired its coach one week after its upset win.

The image of then-redshirt senior wide receiver Gabe Marks and Falk not meeting the camera’s eye in the Holiday Bowl postgame news conference are still just as raw as they were in December. Moreover, that sight, coupled with Leach saying there were “a certain number of people pouting on the sideline” in the loss, is just as relevant as WSU’s preseason ranking.

“We have to understand we haven’t really accomplished anything,” Leach said. “We have an opportunity to accomplish something this weekend if we improve and play well.”

Leach may view the team’s troubled past in week one as a non-factor entering Saturday’s tilt with the Bobcats, but it reintroduces all of the uncertainties WSU left us following its Holiday Bowl defeat.

To be fair, the Cougars return eight regular starters from last season on defense. Not to mention a backup quarterback in redshirt sophomore Tyler Hilinski whose spring and fall camp stat lines were pretty much identical to those of Falk and a running back quartet viewed as one of the deepest in the nation.

“I haven’t had that depth [at running back],” Leach said. “There’s pretty good distribution too, as far as classification. I think that’s always helpful. We’ve always had productive running backs. We had the best group of running backs in the league last year, and we’d like to this year.”

Is the preseason hype warranted? One can make a solid case based off the eyeball test. The early-season shortcomings over the past five years make you want to say “prove it,” at the same time.

The intangibles are in place for WSU to make a dark horse run at a Pac-12 North division title and increase its regular season win total from eight games. Remember though, that past experiences and individual performances shape the present outlook.

The Bobcats, 4-7 in 2016, closed last season on a two-game winning streak, bring back returners on both sides and have a second-year head coach in Jeff Choate, whom Leach said is “an enthusiastic guy and is committed to coaching.” Choate also served as the linebackers coach at WSU in 2012 — Leach’s inaugural season.

The underlying variables present in Montana State’s season outlook serve as a reminder that the Cougars’ last two season-openers prove once teams take the field in week one, nine months of preseason hype and chatter are nullified.

With a calm coach leading his most talented team in six years into Saturday’s meeting with Montana State, there is reason to be confident that WSU is ready to vanquish its ghost of the week-one loss.

But let’s wait until Saturday to find out.