College football is built on geography. Not just the struggle between the Midwest and the South, but there is also the States, Techs and A&Ms, plus the duality of inner-city recruits playing big-time football in rural towns far from home. Washington State, nestled in the vast nothingness that is The Palouse, encompasses all that is right with the mystique of college football, especially going into 2012.
For a school more famous for having a flag flown every week at College Gameday than their lone Rose Bowl victory in 1916, Washington State is itching to come into their own. So it only made sense for the Cougars to hire Mike Leach, the most high-profile coach in school history.
Coach Leach brings an unusual vibe to Pullman. He’s been called a lot of things during his coaching career, everything from crazy to vulgar, and despite the controversy that surrounded his departure from Texas Tech in 2010, that edginess sort of fits at Washington State, which has needed something to cheer for and someone to believe in for more than a decade.
Ten years ago, the Cougars were one of the teams to beat in Pac-10, and seemingly on an annual basis. Under Mike Price, Washington State had three AP top-10 finishes and two Pac-10 titles.
An overtime win over USC in 2002 put them in the drivers’ seat in the Pac-10, and they were ranked as high as No. 3, as late as November 23rd, before a loss to arch-rival Washington dashed their national title hopes. And a year later, months after Mike Price was fired from Alabama over his love for drinks and sex, they entered the LA Coliseum with head coach Bill Doba and a 7-1 record, ranked No. 6 in country.
After the Trojans picked apart the Cougars 43-16 on national television, a decade of futility found itself sucking the life out of Pullman each fall.
When Price left to go to Alabama in December of 2002, Washington State was stuck will Doba, who won just 30 games in five seasons, despite winning the Holiday Bowl and going 10-3 in 2003. After Doba, it was Paul Wulff, who received more fanfare about his wholesome personality than the team’s results on the football field, winning just nine games in four seasons.
So for a school stuck with the connotation of poor, horny, yet lovable coaches, going after a great football mind with a wacky background like Mike Leach could be the smartest decision the university has made since changing its name to Washington State in 1959.
Leach brings an edge. He’ll throw down F-Bombs and pick apart defenses, and give the Cougars a look that they haven’t had since Jason Gesser was dishing the rock ten years ago.
His passing attack put Wes Welker on the map and allowed names like Kliff Kingsbury and Sonny Cumbie to be printed in record books, despite having numbers that didn’t necessarily reflect their athletic fortitude. So when Leach saw the talent he was inheiriting in Pullman, the unpredictable weather of the Palouse didn’t sound too bad.
Senior quarterback Jeff Tuel, a native of Fresno, California, returns to WSU with a piece of home with him, Marquess Wilson. Wilson, who could be the odds-on-favorite to lead the Pac-12 in receiving, grew up in Tulare, just an hour’s drive from the Tuel family residence.
It’s an odd pairing that shows not only the cognitive dissonance that comes with wanting to play Pac-12 football in Pullman, but an example of just how much talent there is California, something that Mike Leach is used to, having coached in Texas for so many years.
Tuel threw for 2,780 yards as a sophomore back in 2010, with more than a third of that yardage going to Wilson, who caught 55 catches and six touchdowns as a freshman. Last year, Wilson was second to only Robert Woods in catches, but led the Pac-12 in yardage and added a team-best 12 touchdown catches to his resume.
Together, the Tuel-to-Wilson connection should be exponentially better than it was in 2010, when Tuel was sacked an obscene 48 times. Three linemen return, including tackle John Fullington(No. 31 draft eligible OT according to Phil Steele), and the birth of the Mike Leach offense, which will turn both Tuel and Wilson loose.
Leach’s play calling, which utilizes four receiver sets and motion in the backfield, will make it tough for defenses to isolate on the 6-foot-4 Wilson, who will likely mirror the same role that Michael Crabtree made famous in 2007. With screens and slants to dink and dunk down the field, there’s no reason that Jeff Tuel’s production can’t at least start to look like Graham Harrell in 2012, especially with Wilson serving as his Crabtree.
Last year under Wulff and without Tuel, the Cougars had their best season in years, despite winning just four games, with the best statistical season since 2007 in a host of categories, including out-gaining their opponents for the first time since the Doba-era.
With 14 starters including Tuel and Wilson, the infusion of Mike Leach and a schedule that skips USC and hosts Oregon and Washington, the Cougars won’t be the favorites to win the Pac-12 North, but they’ll give teams all they can handle, and then some, and just might end up bowl eligible for the first time in nine years.