Lost in all the talk of pirates, Civil War generals, Friday Night Lights, hunting trips, and failed Senatorial campaigns is that new Washington State head coach Mike Leach knows how to win. He did so every season he was leading Texas Tech before his unexpected firing in December 2009.
For a program that hasn't gone bowling since 2003, the longest postseason-less streak in the Pacific 12 Conference, finding a winning coach was a top priority. Leach is just that, and predecessor Paul Wulff left behind a team capable of doing so quickly.
Wulff took over a dire situation when he replaced Bill Doba after the 2007 season, having to boot numerous players from the team and as a result, enduring some very lean years. Recruits like Jeff Tuel, Connor Halliday and Marquess Wilson fit what Leach likes to do, and Wulff certainly left Wazzu in better shape than he found it.
Leach is in the Palouse to put the Cougars over the top. The situation is very much comparable to Rich Rodriguez's arrival at Arizona to replace Mike Stoops. Each program's ousted head coach got his team on the green, but the new hires are there to -- as Chubbs Peterson would say -- tap tap tap it in.
How successful the 2012 campaign is hinges largely on tonight's nationally televised opener against BYU. This showdown of Cougars pits a very capable spread offense against a BYU defense that had an outstanding 2011. The Cougars -- uh, the Provo based Cougars -- ranked No. 32 against the pass a season ago, allowing just over 200 yards per game. BYU did face some passing-based offense, including Hawai'i and Oregon State, but few coaches anywhere like to go to the air like Leach.
Leach cut his teeth on the spread offense at BYU, a well publicized fact heading into the opener. BYU was renowned in its WAC days for airing out the ball, and Leach flourished with the philosophy in Lubbock. His last team there threw 669 times, and accrued more yards in the air than every Bowl Subdivision program but Houston.
The spread offense will allow talented Tuel to wing it all over the field, though NFL caliber receiver Wilson is the primary target. Wilson ranks among the Pac-12 elite like Keenan Allen, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and in Leach's pass-happy attack could surpass them all.
Scoring points shouldn't be a problem for the Cougars. It's limiting them for the opposition that will make or break this team. WSU ranked No. 95 in the nation last season, surrendering almost 32 points per game. The porousness of the defense is the reason WSU is a more-than-two-touchdown underdog at BYU, and it will determine if the Cougars spend the holidays bowling or back in Pullman.
Containing BYU quarterback Riley Nelson is key tonight, and sets the tone for the remainder of the season. Everything about tonight sets the tone for the season.
The Cougars play a schedule conducive to making a bowl game. UNLV can be penciled in as a win, and while Eastern Washington is a title contender in the FCS, WSU should handle its in-state neighbor. Beating BYU brings the Cougars to 3-0, requiring wins in just one-third of the Pac-12 schedule -- a feat that has eluded this program in the last half-decade.
Colorado, Cal, UCLA and Washington are all home games. Oregon is a home game played across the state in Seattle, though the Cougars aren't beating the Ducks anywhere. The other four are winnable, though. WSU beat CU a season ago, played UCLA down to the wire in the Rose Bowl, and UW is a rivalry game. It's a realistic order, but it's predicated on a strong non-conference start.