The 2002 college football season is finally here -- and you'll have to excuse Cougar football fans and well-wishers if they get a tad teary; it's been five years since they've had this type of attention lobbed onto their football team. Last year's Cougs regained a healthy chunk of that 1997 Rose Bowl respect when they went 10-2 with a Sun Bowl victory, although still, most didn't notice until after the sixth game of the year when WSU took Stanford on the Farm to go 6-0. Then the national vocabulary suddenly sprouted a new word, and it became those "surprising" Cougars.
Well, the surprise is over. The Cougars lost two games by a total of 19 points last year, squandering scoring opportunities that could have won them both games. Since they will be returning the majority of that 10-win team, including a starting senior quarterback with a Heisman campaign, the pre-season polls have seen fit to place them at No. 11 (Associate Press), No. 14 (ESPN/USA Today) and even No. 6 (The New York Times). And the conference media poll -- for the first time in the 41-year history of the conference -- selected WSU as the preseason favorite to win the league title.
Head coach Mike Price has amassed a fair amount of talent in Pullman, and some of that talent comes by way of the state of Florida and goes by the names of Jermaine Green or Devard Darling. (When was the last time two Floridians were on a Cougar roster, anyway?) Running back Green, from Butler County Community College in Kansas, has been penciled into the rotation with senior John Tippins; he hails originally out of Spruce Creek High School in Daytona Beach. Green figures to replace the role of last year's standout running back David Minnich and will likely play heavily in the rotation of running backs. The running back committee for the Cougars has already been formed: Tippins, Green, Allen Thompson, Lavell Anderson and new addition Jonathon Smith.
The offense's other major personnel loss from last season was leading receiver Nakoa McElrath, whose spot in the rotation will be filled by Darling. Darling was at Florida State until a tragic genetic heart ailment took the life of his brother Devaughn, a linebacker for the Seminoles. Devard chose to transfer out of FSU and wound up all the way across the country in Pullman. Darling had two receptions for 36 yards in his freshman season at FSU and will join proven performers Mike Bush, Jerome Riley and Collin Henderson. Trandon Harvey and Curtis Nettles add experienced depth while incoming JC transfer receiver Sammy Moore can eventually add another dangerous element to the volatile offensive mix. In the meantime, Moore will handle kick return duties.
Throwing to all these talented receivers will be Jason Gesser, who is currently perched at the No. 5 spot in both WSU's all-time passing and total offense categories behind such luminaries as Jack Thompson, Ryan Leaf, Drew Bledsoe and Timm Rosenbach. (He has already passed, so to speak, Mark Rypien.) Barring injuries, Gesser is almost certain to achieve the top spot sometime in November. Gesser will be entering his third year as the starting QB, where he has been 14-8 as a starter (the best of any QB in the Mike Price era), and he is a pre-season all-Pac-10 first teamer as well as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
The offensive line core will return seven full or part-time starters, including pre-season All-American Derrick Roche. So the only remaining question mark on offense will be at tight end, where a free-for-all is expected to ensue for the starting spot between returning experienced sophomore Mark Ahlberg, Tulane transfer Eddie Robinson, redshirt freshmen Troy Biennemann and Adam West and true freshman Jesse Taylor. Ahlberg is a proven blocking commodity with offensive limitations, so a combination of him with Biennemann's, Robinson's and West's learning processes could allow the Cougs the luxury of redshirting Taylor.
"Right now, Troy is leading that group, but there will be a rotation," says Coach Price.
This year, the Cougars will have to get defensive -- emotionally and out on the field -- because they lose their top four tacklers from last season. One of them (safety and defensive QB Lamont Thompson) also happened to be the Pac-10's all-time career leader in interceptions, with 24. Most teams that have won the Pac-10 title in the past decade do so by defending the pass and defending it well -- usually relying on a seasoned secondary to do the trick. The Cougars will lose 16 interceptions out of their Pac-10 leading (and second in the NCAA) 26 picks in 2001 and 305 tackles when they lose Thompson, safety Billy Newman and linebackers Raonall Smith and James Price.
Spokane's Erik Coleman (Lewis and Clark) had three of those picks and 39 of those tackles, and he'll replace Thompson. But the other safety spot is up for grabs, although it appears junior Virgil Williams has the inside track. The oft-injured Williams will likely be awarded a sixth-year of eligibility due to his medical hardships. The left corner is set with senior all-Pac-10 first teamer Marcus Trufant returning ("the best defensive back I've ever coached" says Price), while right corner is a battle between returning junior starter Jason David and sophomore insurgent Karl Paymah.
Linebackers are the Cougars' weakest spot on defense because there is no replacing the contributions made by Smith and Price last year. Junior Al Genatone, the team's fifth-leading tackler as a sophomore, is expected to be solid, but the other two spots are open game. Sophomore junior college transfer Kevin Sperry was thought to have the inside line on one of those spots (the middle), but Pat Bennett, who has game experience, will likely share the rotation while junior Ira Davis and redshirt freshman Will Derting share the other spot's rotation. Junior college transfer Donnie Jackson may also see some time with the slight possibility that true freshman Scott Davis could also see action.
"Out of the JC guys and the ones who have had experience, there are six linebackers who are interchangeable -- they can all play this year," says Price.
The Cougs' defensive line should be the best in the league. The Cougars return seven of eight off their two-deep chart a year ago, and those eight (defensive end Tupo Tuupo was the lone loss) were responsible for a Pac-10 leading 40 sacks. Starters aren't as important on the defensive line because there will be a heavy rotation that will include co-sack leaders DD Acholonu and Isaac Brown, Tai Tupai, Spokane's Jeremey Williams (Ferris), Rien Long, Fred Shavies, Steve Cook and Tomasi "TKO" Kongaika, who returns from an injury. Newcomers will find time hard to come by, but likely candidates to see action are redshirt freshman Bryan Boyer and freshman Adam Braidwood.
Finally, special teams is another Cougar strong point as WSU returns one of the conference's top kickers in Drew Dunning who was money inside the 40 last year [16 out of 16] and kickoff specialist Adam Holiday who boomed the majority of his kicks into the end zone. The conference's fourth-leading punter last year, Alan Cox, will be replaced by Kyle Basler, who Price claims consistently boots the ball into the state of Idaho. High school All-American, now-redshirt freshman, Graham Siderius backs up all three positions.
So in 2002, the Cougs seem to have most of the tools in the toolbox, barring injuries or misadventures in academics or jurisprudence, WSU is poised to take advantage of last year's success to give Mike Price his first back-to-back winning seasons as a Cougar football head coach. Just how exactly will it all shake out in the Pac-10? Here, again, are my annual Pac-10 picks:
I've picked the Cougs fifth three years in a row, so it's time for a promotion; they've paid their dues. With the best QB and defensive line in the league, and the most submissive schedule, they only need to execute, avoid injuries and break in a couple linebackers and a couple safeties to achieve their bowl -- whether it's Rose or Fiesta.
Another billboard in New York City, more pretension, same old Ducks. Could the defending champs become the defending chumps? Not bloody likely. The Ducks have eight home games in the expanded Autzen Stadium this year, and it doesn't matter that they lost Joey Harrington and Maurice Morris. What does matter is that Oregon returns three starters off the conference's best pass-protecting offensive line in 2001. In a conference where pass is king, that's akin to having returning royalty. Their best title chance may come in Pullman in November.
The Boys of Troy are consistently overrated -- tops in the nation in that category over the past 10 years. Still, you have to wonder to yourself, when are they going to figure out what to do with all that talent? Maybe this year. After taking a year to bumble through offensive coordinator Norm Chow's offensive scheme, Chow has dumbed it down and the Trojans might get the hang of it. USC has the most returning offensive starters of any Pac-10 school and the stingiest defense from last year. But they also have the league's toughest schedule.
4] Oregon State
What Sports Illustrated really meant to say was that this year would be the Year of the Beaver. OSU returns the most total returning starters of any team, and most of those are on defense where the Beavers should make life rough for the opposition. Offensively, new starting QB Derek Anderson will have to be consistent for OSU to be a player at the end of the season, but with Steven Jackson in the backfield, this is the scariest team in the conference in 2002. They're a dark horse, spoiler and contender all wrapped up in one tight package.
Is it 2002 already? Time for the Bruins to underachieve again. After utterly dominating the first six games of 2001, the Bruins then proceeded to implode during the remainder of the season. This year, UCLA should have the best offensive line for the run and best pass defense, but a tough schedule, spotty QB play and an inexperienced defensive line may be their downfall.
If they had been wearing Cougar uniforms, we would have picked them to win the conference. Instead, we're going out on a limb here and predict that UW receiver Reggie Williams is likely to see a double team now and then (okay, how about on every paly), which means it will be up to the other members of the offense to get it done. That plays into the Huskies' strength, as they do have many offensive starters back for 2002. What they don't have is a defense, and, generally, you need one of those to do well in college football.
If the Trees finish this high, it will truly be the type of accomplishment that would be worthy of a Tree degree. With only two part-time starters returning on defense and a new offensive-minded coach in Buddy Teevens on the Farm, we see nothing but doom and gloom.
The Wildcats are too busy creating headlines by breaking NCAA rules, getting in nightclub fights and becoming academically ineligible to be bothered with playing football. There is nothing extraordinary about the Wildcats, and we expect another ordinary season from middle manager John Mackovic.
9] Arizona State
Anybody wanna play QB? Anybody? Hello? Who wants to be behind one returning offensive line starter and deal with Dirk Koetter, too? The Sun Devils return most of their defensive starters from last year, but so what? Double team defensive lineman Terrell Suggs and don't worry about the rest in their freaky five-DB scheme -- it never stopped anybody last year, why should this year be any different?
New coach Jeff Tedford should be Pac-10 Coach of the Year if he can get them anywhere beyond seventh place.
You can follow Tony C. Duarte's ongoing Cougar football coverage every week on www.cougzone.com