Hollywood, Calif. • Washington State coach Mike Leach tries to bring some degree of humor to the Pac-12 Football Media Day, with his offbeat answers and eagerness to tackle any subject.

In turn, the conference's official media poll always amuses Leach.

“Yeah, that’s the great thing about us, every season everybody thinks we’re going to get our head kicked in, then we don’t,” Leach said last week in Hollywood, regarding the Cougars’ fourth-place forecast in the Pac-12 North. “So everybody gets to be stunned and surprised, so it’s fun for everybody.”

WSU’s status is explained by the North’s presence of Washington, Oregon and Stanford, all champions in the expanded Pac-12 of this decade. The Cougars, along with California and Oregon State, never have appeared in the conference title game. Yet they’ve gone 26-10 in league play over the past four seasons (Utah is 20-16 in that span). WSU finished 11-2 overall last year with a No. 10 ranking in the final AP Top 25 and Leach was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after his team was picked fifth in the North last July, behind California.

Utah doesn’t have to be reminded about the Cougars’ rise under Leach, a BYU graduate who didn’t play football at the school. WSU has beaten the Utes four-straight times, including a 28-24 victory last September via an 89-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.

That history contributes to what looms as a very interesting September for Utah in 2019. The Utes will open their Pac-12 schedule by visiting USC, having never won in the Coliseum, and then hosting Washington State.

The Cougars have become more than a passing novelty in the Pac-12, with Leach's Air Raid offense complemented by a solid defense. WSU is recruiting better players and developing them, with good defensive coaching. The improvement started with the hiring of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who moved to Ohio State and then Oklahoma. Tracy Claeys replaced Grinch and has maintained those standards.

“Coming from Washington State, the Air Raid's always going to get the press, it's always going to get the attention,” WSU linebacker Jahad Woods said during Media Day. “But us as a defense, we have to find a way to kind of replicate the success of the offense.”

That happened last season, when the Cougars ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense and held Utah to three points in the second half in Pullman, Wash. Ute running back Zack Moss said WSU presented the trickiest defensive scheme for him to run against; he needed 30 carries to gain 106 yards.

WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in his only season as a graduate transfer in 2018, and Leach may use similar strategy this season. Gage Gubrud has moved from Eastern Washington, after having led the Eagles to a 45-42 upset of WSU in 2016. Gubrud is the probable starter, ahead of a QB field that includes Lehi’s Cammon Cooper.

“Dedicated, hard-working player,” Leach said of Gubrud. “Smart. Student of the game. He looked good in spring. But a lot of guys look good in spring. It will be very competitive for that position.”

The new quarterback’s challenges will include beating rival Washington. For all of their quarterbacking success in Pullman, Minshew and his predecessor, Logan’s Luke Falk, never thrived against the Huskies. WSU has lost six-straight games to Washington, while never scoring more than 17 points.

STEADY CLIMB
Mike Leach's coaching record at Washington State (Pac-12 records in parentheses):
2012 – 3-9 (1-8).
2013 – 6-7 (4-5).
2014 – 3-9 (2-7).
2015 – 9-4 (6-3).
2016 – 8-5 (7-2).
2017 – 9-4 (6-3).
2018 – 11-2 (7-2).
LEACH VS. UTAH
2012 – Utah 49, WSU 6.
2013 – WSU 49, Utah 37.
2014 – WSU 28, Utah 27.
2017 – WSU 33, Utah 25.
2018 – WSU 28, Utah 24.