2006 record: 6-6 overall, 4-5 Pacific-10 Conference (tied for 5th)
2007 predicted finish: 8th in Pac-10 (media poll); 54th out of 119 teams in NCAA Division I-A (Sports Illustrated)
Key players (2006 feats): Sr. QB Alex Brink (passed for 2,899 yards, 19 TDs, 10 interceptions); Jr. MLB Greg Trent (77 tackles); Jr. WR Brandon Gibson (49 receptions for 731 yards, 4 TDs); Sr. WR Michael Bumpus (60 receptions for 558 yards, 1 TD); So. RB Dwight Tardy (rushed for 667 yards, 4 TDs); Sr. DT-DE Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 290-pounder may be team's top NFL prospect)
Season outlook: The Cougars have talented veterans at the skill positions, but the starting offensive tackles are a redshirt freshman and a junior college transfer who has played football for only two years. On defense, the Cougars tackle the pass-happy Pac-10 with two starting cornerbacks who haven't played a down of college football. Special teams were a disaster last year, and kicker Romeen Abdollmohammadi is a former junior college soccer player who has attempted just four field goals in his life.
Season opener: At Wisconsin, Saturday, Sept. 1 (12:30 pm, KXLY 4, KXLY 920)
Home opener(s): San Diego State at Seattle's Qwest Field on Saturday, Sept. 8 (4 pm, no TV, KXLY 920); Idaho at WSU's Martin Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 15 (7 pm, FSN, KXLY 920). Call (800) GO-COUGS
Howie sez: Doba, 5-13 in WSU's last 18 Pac-10 games, might get the ax if the Cougars miss out on a bowl game for the fourth straight year. Winning in the rugged Pac-10 will be tough with so many inexperienced players, but Brink and Co. should light up the scoreboard if the offensive line delivers. Opening at seventh-ranked Wisconsin will be culture shock for the droves of freshmen and juco transfers. Too bad the Cougs lost 10 -- count 'em, TEN -- veterans to academic ineligibility. Three recruits, too. That won't help a team that plays four of its first five games away from Pullman.
Coach: Robb Akey (0-0, first year)
2006 record: 4-8 overall, 3-5 Western Athletic Conference (6th)
2007 predicted finish: 9th (last) in WAC (coaches poll); 107th out of 119 teams in NCAA Division I-A (Sports Illustrated)
Key players (2006 feats): Sr. ILB David Vobora (7th in I-A with 134 tackles); Sr. CB-WR-KR Stanley Franks (led I-A with 0.75 interceptions per game by tying school record of 9 in season); Jr. C Adam Korby (Rimington Award Watch List for nation's top center); Fr. RB Deont & eacute; Jackson (redshirted); Fr. QB Nathan Enderle (redshirted); Jr. RB Jayson Bird (evolving into short-yardage specialist, but has career rushing totals of 1,435 yards and 16 TDs)
Season outlook: Even the omni-optimistic Akey will be severely tested in his first year as a head coach. The longtime Washington State assistant lost much of the limited talent available when around 20 players left the program -- either voluntarily, because of grades or with Akey's boot in their butt. Enderle is underwhelming, and depth and talent are so threadbare at so many positions, Franks and others will be forced to play both ways at times. Vobora is a proud, talented leader.
Season opener: At USC, Saturday, Sept. 1 (7:15 pm, FSN, KVNI 1080)
Home opener: Cal Poly at Idaho's Kibbie Dome, Saturday, Sept. 8 (2 pm, no TV, KVNI 1080). Call (888) 884-3246
Howie sez: Why would a kind, intelligent, caring man like Akey do this to himself? That No. 107 ranking could be a tad high for the Vandals, who might face a real challenge against a strong Division II team. Dennis Erickson -- gosh, who knew he only planned to be an interim coach? -- snuck out of town after just one year back in Moscow when he saw that season opener at USC on the horizon. The top-ranked Trojans will have to be good sports to hold the score under 100. Seriously.
Coach: Paul Wulff (44-36, 8th year)
2006 record: 3-8 overall, 3-5 Big Sky Conference (tied for sixth)
2007 predicted finish: 5th in Big Sky (coaches poll); 82nd out of 101 "major" teams in NCAA Division I-AA (College Sports Report)
Key players (2006 feats): So. QB Matt Nichols (1,749 yards passing, 8 TDs, 17 int.); Sr. OG Rocky Hanni (second-team all-league); Sr. OG Matt Alfred (second-team all-league); Jr. RB Alexis Alexander (rushed for 58 yards, 1 TD on 12 carries); Sr. SS Bryan Jarrett (48 tackles despite injury); Jr. DE Greg Peach (42 tackles, 5-1/2 sacks)
Season outlook: Hanni and Alfred are big, experienced men up front, but players like Nichols and Alexander (a former Spokane Indians outfielder from Medical Lake) also must come up huge for the Eagles to bounce back from their first losing season since 1998. Eastern took a major hit when free safety Gregor Smith could not recover from shoulder problems. Eastern's pass rush must improve to aid the secondary against pass-first, pass-second, pass-forever Big Sky offenses. Washington State transfer Fritz Brayton, the grandson of legendary WSU baseball coach Bobo Brayton, is a solid addition at punter.
Season opener: Montana-Western at Eastern Washington's Woodward Field, Friday, Aug. 31 (7:05 pm, no TV, KGA 1510). Call (866) 4GO-EAGS
Howie sez: The Eagles return a large contingent of players who paid a steep price for their inexperience last season. Of course, few teams could avoid a big drop-off after losing two of the greatest players in school history off the '05 squad -- QB Erik Meyer and WR Eric Kimble. The Eagles need significant improvement on both lines, and Nichols must make a mondo step up after a mistake-filled freshman season. RB Dale Morris, the brother of Seattle Seahawks running back Maurice Morris, is explosive when healthy. The opener with little Montana-Western -- a NAIA team that went 1-9 last year -- should be a laugher.
2007 predicted finish: 2nd in NWC (coaches poll); 16th out of 238 teams in NCAA Division III (D3football.com)
Key players (2006 feats): Sr. MLB Casey Clifton (107 tackles, 10-1/2 tackles for loss, 5 sacks); Sr. SS-WR-KR Jay Tully (71 tackles, 7 interceptions, 21 catches for 286 yards and 4 TDs, 18.6 yards per kickoff return); Sr. CB Ryan Marshall (7 interceptions); Sr. DE Justin Rundle (45 tackles); Sr. WR Steve Silva (58 catches for 759 yards, 4 TDs); Sr. OG Levi Wyman (honorable mention all-league)
Season outlook: Fifteen returning starters -- including eight seniors on defense -- should give newcomers in the offensive backfield time to adjust to the big-time losses of QB Joel Clark and TE Michael Allan. Tully and Clifton are preseason All Americans who sparked a defense that produced 28 interceptions (2nd in Division III) and 40 takeaways last year. Clifton was the NWC Defensive Player of the Year, and Tully (the coach's son) is so good he plays both ways and returns kicks. The entire starting secondary returns intact to soak up the great small-school atmosphere on autumn afternoons at the picturesque Pine Bowl.
Season opener: Redlands at Whitworth's Pine Bowl, Saturday, Sept. 8 (noon, no TV, KSBN 1230). Call 777-3224
Howie sez: Allan, a Kansas City Chiefs draft pick, was the ultra-rare NFL talent at a Division III school (no athletic scholarships). Allan might have been the best player in school history, but he wasn't the only reason the Pirates won a school-record 11 games, including the first postseason victory in school history. Whitworth's defense remains stellar -- Coach Tully says it has the potential to be the Pirates' best ever -- so look for the Bucs to return to the Division III national playoffs for the second straight year. n