Washington State Cougars Football Preview: Let The Mike Leach Era Begin

July 24, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach (left) and quarterback Jeff Tuel answer media questions during PAC-12 Media Day at Universal Studios Hollywood. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Washington State Cougars kick off their first season under head coach Mike Leach and the Palouse has never been so excited.

"And what an amazing comeback by the Washington Huskies to all but wrap up the 2012 Apple Cup. All that's left to do is squib this kick and let the last second run out. There it is and the Cougs recover. One lateral... another... over again and I think this is it... one more lateral back to Wilson and he's breaking free, thERE HE GOES AND OH! THE BEAR IS OUT ON THE FIELD!!! THE BEAR IS OUT ON THE FIELD!!! MARQUESS WILSON SCORES AND THE COUGS HAVE WON THE APPLE CUP!!! I DON'T BELIEVE IT!!! THE MOST AMAZING, UNBELIEVABLE, BEAR-ATTACKING FINISH THAT I HAVE EVER SEEN!"

What you have just read is a possible audio recording of the 2012 Apple Cup after Mike Leach unleashes a live bear that he caught out in the wild, onto the field for an added edge. At this point, after an offseason filled with wild stories and unprecedented happenings in the Palouse, anything is possible.

I am not exaggerating or using hyperbole when I say that Leach is the biggest hire in the history of the program. Washington State has a much longer track record with breeding head coaches for more successful programs than it does with hiring them. Jim Walden had never been a head coach before he led WSU from 1978-1986. Dennis Erickson was hired away from Wyoming after previously coaching at Idaho. After leaving the school that he swore was his dream job to go to Miami, Erickson recommended former teammate Mike Price, the head coach at Weber State.

Since Price left us for Alabama after 14 seasons as head coach in 2003, the program has been scrambling for an answer and stumbling through the Bill Doba and Paul Wulff eras. A decade that most fans would rather forget and there's no better way to get that taste out of our mouth than by making the most significant hire in school history.

I can tell you that as a Cougar alum, honestly did not feel that it would be a good idea to fire Wulff, despite his 9-40 record, for one simple fact: We will have a hard time getting someone better, so we might as well stick with the guy who knows these players and this team better than any outside candidates. Hiring Leach changes everything going forward. Hiring Leach is like waking up in your Matrix pod.

Mike Leach is the first coach hired in school history to have previous head coaching experience at a Division I school but he was also extremely successful. After taking over for Spike Dykes at Texas Tech, Leach coached the Red Raiders to bowl games in each of the next ten seasons and taking over as the most-winningest coach in their 85-year history. His greatest season coming in 2008 when the team won 10 games for the first time since 1976 with wins over #18 Kansas, #8 Oklahoma State, and #1 Texas on their way to being ranked as high as #2 in the nation. It was the first time that Texas Tech had ever beaten the top-ranked team in the country. Ultimately, they lost at #5 Oklahoma to kill their chances at a national championship, but Leach and his famous "Air Raid" offense had made it's mark on college football history.

An often-disputed altercation with player Adam James would lead to Leach being fired the next year and he's spent the next two years off of the sideline, but his return to college football is one of the most-exciting moments in the modern era of the Palouse. Things definitely feel different and the fan base is more hopeful for a season than it's been in a decade. After months of preparation and talk, the season finally kicks off today. Here is a little bit more on the 2012 Washington State Cougars football season.

2011 Record: 4-8 (2-7)

The Cougs won two games in conference play for the first time since 2007, the last year under Bill Doba. They had won four total under Wulff. Washington State started the season 3-1 after wins over UNLV, Idaho State, and Colorado before blowing a fourth quarter lead at UCLA. They had also held a 24-21 lead at San Diego State before losing 42-24. The Cougars wouldn't win again until 37-27 over Arizona State, but they would lose to Utah in overtime the next week.

Despite the 2-7 record in conference, it was the first time that they had even been relatively competitive under Wulff and was considered an improvement.

Washington State finished sixth in total defense and total offense in the Pac-12. They were second in the conference in passing yards per game behind Arizona at 342 yards per game.

Key Returners

Senior QB Jeff Tuel was injured for most of the season, making just 45 pass attempts. Sophomore Connor Halliday played in four games and in the win over Arizona State, he was 27 of 36 for 494 yards, 4 TD and 0 INT. It's expected that Tuel will reclaim his starting job for this season.

Sophomore WR Marquess Wilson is one of the top receivers in the nation and he had 82 catches for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. It's possible that in the Air Raid offense, one of the most prolific in FBS history, Wilson could have more yards than all of the other receivers in the nation combined. In April, Mark Sandritter of Cougcenter actually did guesstimate what Wilson could do in Leach's offense and it really could be historic. Wilson currently has 2,394 yards in his two-year career, just 362 yards shy of Brandon Gibson's school record.

Rickey Galvin is one of the most exciting players on the field for Wazzu when healthy, but he made only one carry as a freshman before getting hurt. He ran for 602 yards and 5.3 yards per carry last year, but will be moving to receiver in the offense and could make some big plays in 2012. Sandritter also projected the stats for every player on offense.

Senior tight end Andrei Lintz has only eight career catches, but is expected to play a much larger role in the offense this year.

On defense, DE Travis Long was named second-team All Pac-12 last year and had twelve tackles for a loss. Junior safety Damante Horton was an Honorable Mention in the Pac-12 last season and along with Deone Bucannon and Nolan Washington will lead the secondary.

Key Newcomers

Cougcenter also ran a great feature on predictions of what newcomers could play. Running back Teondray Caldwell has a good shot to get a lot of playing time as one of the lead backs. JC transfer Ioane Guata could start in the middle of the defensive line and JC transfer Justin Sagote could get a lot of time at linebacker.

The one to watch however is true freshman Gabe Marks, one of the top recruits so far from Leach and one of the most impressive young players in camp. Not only will he likely start, but in this offense he could start to challenge Wilson's records after Wilson goes to the NFL.

Of course, guessing which new players will play and which won't is always going to end up biting you. Things change, injuries happen, but there are a few newcomers that could make WSU better immediately.

The Air Raid Offense

This shotgun spread formation has revolutionized the kind of numbers that passers can put up in the college game. Wikipedia has a brief synopsis and history on the Air Raid, but even better than that is this August interview that Cougcenter did with Smart Football's Chris Brown on the system. (Part 1, Part 2)

The system that Leach ran at Texas Tech turned some quarterbacks and receivers into the most prolific in college football history:

- Kliff Kingsbury (1998-2002) left the Tech with 39 school records, 13 Big-12 Records, and 7 D-1 records after throwing for over 10,000 career yards and 95 touchdowns. He was the fourth player in history with three 3,000 yard passing seasons. After his playing career was over, Kingsbury helped turned Case Keenum into a record-setting quarterback at Houston and is now the offensive coordinator for Texas A&M.

- B.J. Symons played for one season at Tech and set the NCAA record with 5,833 passing yards and broke Kingsbury's school and conference record by passing for 52 touchdowns. He finished 10th in the Heisman and his yardage record still stands.

- Wes Welker had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons at Tech, long before he became a star for the Patriots.

- Sonny Cumbie, a walk-on, passed for 4,742 yards in his one season at starter and 520 yards and 3 touchdowns in an upset over #4 Cal in the Holiday Bowl.

- Cody Hodges, the third straight fifth year senior to be named starter, threw for 4,238 yards in his lone season including 646 yards against Kansas State.

- Graham Harrell would grab the job in 2006 and hold it for the next three years. His NCAA records include: Most 400 yard games in a season (11), Most 400 yard games in a career (20), Most passes completed in a season (512), Most passes completed per game in a career (31.2), Most passes completed per game in a season (39.4), and Lowest percentage of passes intercepted in a career with a minimum of 1,050 attempts at 1.69%.

He was already one of the most prolific passers in Texas high school history, so putting the two together was just ridiculous. He won the Sammy Baugh Award for the country's top passer after his junior season, an award also won by Kingsbury and Symons. He broke the NCAA record for touchdown passes in a career until he was passed by Kingsbury's student, Keenum at Houston.

- Teaming with Harrell in 2007, Michael Crabtree caught 134 passes for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns.

The scary part is that Marquess Wilson and Jeff Tuel were already very talented players at their respective positions, with Wilson already within reach of many school records after only two seasons. This is like taking the world's greatest baseball player and then putting him on a heavy dose of steroids, except in this case he wasn't already on them.

2012 Schedule

8/30 - at BYU

9/8 - Eastern Washington

9/14 - at UNLV

9/22 - Colorado

9/29 - Oregon

10/6 - at Oregon State

10/13 - Cal

10/27 - at Stanford

11/3 - at Utah

11/10 - UCLA

11/17 - at Arizona State

11/23 - Washington

11/30 - Pac-12 Championship (One can hope)

Key Dates

The opening game at BYU is a crucial one for several reasons. It's Leach's alma mater, which always makes a matchup more interesting, but it's also the kickoff of the new era for Cougs and the first opportunity for the team to show how much things have really changed. There's nothing like a good first impression. The Cougars of BYU are coming off of a 10-3 season and a win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. Any road game is tough, but BYU is not a pushover by any means. The rest of the non-conference schedule shouldn't be an issue for Wazzu, so this would be a crucial win for Leach and the Cougs.

It's also being broadcast nationally on ESPN, a corporation that Leach is currently suing for defamation.

When looking for ways to get to that crucial six-win barrier to make a bowl game, you have to hope to get some wins that might not seem probable but are definitely possible. The game at Utah would qualify as one of those, I believe. Washington State gave the Utes everything that they could handle in 2011 and should be improved this year. Winning a conference game on the road against a good opponent would go a long way towards getting that sixth win.

Finally, at the end of the day the Apple Cup is the game that will always matter over everything else. Washington enters the season as a borderline top 25 team but to Cougar fans, that means nothing. It means less than nothing. Each side will talk trash and each side will make their arguments, but every year it's a fight and anyone can win. When his WSU career is over, a major part of what Leach will be judged on is his record in the Apple Cup. We couldn't be happier than to see him start off 1-0.

Even if he has to let a bear out onto the field. Actually, we'd love him even more for that.

Follow Kenneth on Twitter, and as always, you must be frequenting CougCenter. They're funny geniuses over there.

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