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Washington State football 2015 preview

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Mike Leach has had a rough time as Washington State's head coach. Will this be the year he gets it going?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into his fourth year at Washington State, some people might say that Mike Leach has been underperforming. Not that he had much to work with. He inherited players that were more Big Sky than Pac-12 caliber. In his first three years Leach has gone 12-25, not exactly what was expected from the coach that took Texas Tech to 10 straight bowl games. After a disastrous 2012 season (3-9), Leach surprised everyone by taking the Cougars to the New Mexico Bowl in 2013. That set up high expectations for 2014. But Washington State went just 3-9 last year in a major letdown.

So what's in store for 2015? There is a lot of football to be played, but Leach is in his best position yet to succeed. Leach has had three years to recruit, and the players on this year's team are finally up to Pac-12 level. New facilities have helped, and Leach has had enough time to weed out the problem players left over from the previous regime.

The offense has never been a problem at Washington State under Leach, and it won't be this year either. Look for the Cougars to rack up yardage and points. The entire offensive line is returning, and quarterback Luke Falk averaged 443 yards a game last season after taking over for the injured Connor Halliday. Veteran receivers and running backs fill out the talented Cougar offense.

The defense is a different story. Last year they were 99th in the nation and gave up 38.6 points a game. A new defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch should help, but the defense is still a question mark heading into this season.

Leach also replaced his special teams coach after last season's disaster. All phases of special teams were atrocious in 2014, leading to the firing of Eric Russell and the promotion of Eric Mele to special teams coordinator. If Mele can shore up the special teams play the Cougars will be greatly improved as a team.

Schedule

The Cougars need to start strong if they want to make a bowl game this year. They open non-conference play with Portland State, Rutgers and Wyoming. Following that they open Pac-12  play with Cal and Oregon on the road, then Oregon State in Pullman, Arizona away, Arizona State in Pullman, UCLA in the Rose Bowl, Colorado in Pullman and close out with Washington in Seattle.

Washington State must win their non-conference play if they want any chance at a bowl game. If they can go into conference play at 3-0, they should be able to get at least three more wins and get to 6-6 and bowl eligibility. Those wins could came against Cal, Oregon State and Colorado. Throw in an upset win or two, and this team could surprise people.

Toughest Game

Oregon's offense should be no match for the Cougar defense, and the Ducks will run away with this one 54-21.

Must-Win Game

Washington State must go 3-0 in their non-conference schedule, and sitting right in the middle of that is Rutgers, a team that edged out the Cougars 41-38 last year. This game is critical to the Cougars getting to a bowl. Victories will be scarce in Pac-12 play, and they must beat Rutgers and go 3-0 in non-conference games to have any chance at the post-season.

Hardest Stretch

Starting in late October the Cougars play Arizona, Stanford, Arizona State and then UCLA. Washington State will be hard-pressed to beat any of these teams, never mind facing them all in a row.

Breakout Player

Luke Falk will surprise the Pac-12 be averaging over 450 yards passing a game.

Final Predictions

Leach will have the offense rolling, the special teams will be hugely improved and the defense will be just good enough to get a few wins. The Cougars will lose an easy one and win a few upset games to finish 7-5 and go bowling.