Pac-12 preview: Washington State has some substance to go with the style in Mike Leach's program

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, from Logan High School, will visit Rice-Eccles Stadium on Nov. 11. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

In the middle of last season, Washington State was really good. The Cougars’ start and finish were different stories.

How many college football teams ever have an eight-game winning streak — and eight victories, total? That’s the 2016 Cougars’ distinction. They lost a season-opening game to a Big Sky Conference team for the second year in a row and then fell to Boise State. Later, the Cougars stumbled through a Holiday Bowl defeat against a depleted Minnesota team after ending the regular season with losses to Colorado and Washington. In between, WSU won its first seven Pac-12 games as the program developed some toughness in coach Mike Leach’s fifth season.

That’s the part the Cougars want to remember as they move into 2017. With five home games to begin the schedule, they have every opportunity for a better start. As for the finish, November games vs. Stanford, Utah and Washington will be challenging.

Editor’s note<br>This  is the third installment in a series previewing Utah’s rivals in the Pac-12. Today • Washington State.

The Cougars have improved, as their 7-2 conference record showed. They’re still perceived as a middle-tier program in the Pac-12 North, especially with rival Washington’s resurgence, but they have moved beyond the image of a team that just tries to outscore opponents. WSU has some substance now, as reflected in a No. 24 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25.

“We’re stronger some places than others. But you try to avoid having glaring weaknesses,” Leach said during the Pac-12 Football Media Days last month. “You try to have a balance where you’re not just horrible somewhere. I think we are pretty balanced that way.”

To rise above a third-place forecast in the division, WSU will need continued growth defensively and more consistency from an offense led by senior quarterback Luke Falk, a Logan High School product.

Washington State head coach Mike Leach speaks at the Pac-12 NCAA college football media day, Thursday, July 27, 2017, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“He’s not a guy that has a bunch of highs and lows,” Leach said. “Just kind of steady, focused, intense work ethic without any panic to it. I do think his best football is ahead of him. I think he needs to just keep doing what he’s doing.”

Falk has passed for 10,888 yards in three years, having replaced an injured starter late in his freshman season. He’s projected to move ahead of BYU’s Ty Detmer (15,031) into the NCAA’s top five on the all-time yardage list. Falk also is scheduled to make his first appearance vs. Utah in the Pac-12′s scheduling rotation.

The Cougars’ first priority is beating Montana State in their Sept. 2 opener. That may not sound like much of achievement, but WSU lost to Portland State in 2015 and Eastern Washington last year. And then the Cougars will host Boise State, which also beat them in 2016.

WASHINGTON STATE<BR>Coach: Mike Leach (sixth season,29-34).<BR>2016: 8-5 (7-2 Pac-12).<BR>2017 media poll: Third in Pac-12 North.<BR>2017 Schedule<BR>Sept. 2 • Montana State<BR>Sept. 9 • Boise State<BR>Sept. 16 • Oregon State<BR>Sept. 23 • Nevada<BR>Sept. 29 • USC<BR>Oct. 7• at Oregon<BR>Oct. 13 • at California<BR>Oct. 21 •Colorado<BR>Oct. 28 • at Arizona<BR>Nov. 4 •Stanford<BR>Nov. 11 • at Utah<BR>Nov. 25 • at Washington