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How Many Games Should WSU Win in 2016?

Greetings, followers!  Hope your 2016 is off to a great start!

As for me, well, things have been pretty busy since my last post–which was way back in December if you can believe it.  But my lack of writing hasn’t stopped me from thinking seemingly non-stop about the Cougs and what figures to be our most anticipated football season since 2006 (if not earlier)!

In any case, over the last two weeks, I have spent a bit of my “off” time perusing through several college football preview magazines. And in case you haven’t done the same yourself, each magazine has consistently slated us for 4th in the Pac-12 North, winning anywhere between 6 and 8 games overall.  Moreover, this predicted win total closely corresponds with what I’ve seen from Vegas which has our over/under  for total wins around 7 games (range 6.6 to 7.5).

In other words, in the eyes of  most experts, WSU figures to fare slightly worse (but not remarkably so) in 2016 than it did in 2015.

Of course, my immediate reaction to all of that was to dismiss such talk.

Whatever!

I mean, with so much talent returning, is it really reasonable for others to think that we will fare worse than we did last year?

And as soon as I asked myself this important question, I knew that I had the makings of my first post of the year.  So, let’s get on to it, shall we?

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Followers, there are a bunch of different ways to answer the question “How many games should we expect WSU to win in 2016?” And unfortunately, most of those methods include the use of those things called “facts.” But because I am not the sharpest tool in the shed, and because I am also numb to anything that resembles “data”, my approach was to keep things a bit more “real”  (as in “real dumb”).

So, as I thought about how I should best go about trying to formulate an honest answer, I found myself pondering two important sub-questions. The first was  “Does the 2016 WSU football team–at least on paper–figure to be better than the one it fielded in 2015?”  The second was “Should we expect WSU’s opponents to be better than the opposition we faced in 2015?”

To answer the first question, I created a table that was meant to (subjectively) evaluate the relative standing of each position group relative to the 2015 roster (this of course is tricky because all position groups are not created equally). So, for instance, if I thought the 2016 Team was better for a particular position group, I gave that group a score of “1”; if I thought it was more or less the same, I gave it a “0;” if I thought it was worse I gave it a “-1;” and lastly, I gave a +/- .5 for Special Teams (aka “Special Forces”) because they represent the mythical “third side” of the football.

Not as Easy as it looks, right!

And, this is what I came up with:

QB   Better (+1)

RB   Better (+1)

WR  Same (0)

OL   Worse (-1)

PK   Better (+.5)

Overall Improvement:  +1.5

“Analysis”: Obviously, we can debate the above until the cows come home–and I hope that you will add your thoughts in comments as time allows.  But, the thinking above was simple (duh!):  I think that Luke Falk is going to be better and more efficient (if that’s possible) in 2016.  I think Wicks and Williams are going to be better than what we saw last year, while I think Morrow will remain a guy that you just can’t keep off the field.

With respect to the WR group, I expect Marks’ performance to be similar because he’ll be marked man; I expect Martin to fare slightly worse than Dom, but I think that the Y and H positions will be improved on the whole, especially if #RIOSUAVE (featured above) can stay healthy.  So, that whole position group feels like a wash, especially since I think we’ll get an added dimension out of the backfield this year.

Lastly, while Joe Dahl is obviously a huge loss, my biggest concern with the offensive line is not left tackle but left guard–hence why I am grading us down, however, slightly at that position.  I also think that PK will be improved–much in the way that we saw Furney catch on as a clutch performer during his senior campaign.   All in all, I think the death by 1,000 cuts offense will be improved in 2016.  I’m not sure, however, whether or not that improvement will be marginal or if we’ll emerge as a bonafide juggernaut in 2016.

2016 Cougar Defense

DL   Worse  (-1)

LB   Worse (-1)

DB   Better (+1)

S      Better (+1)

Coverage:  Better (+.5)

Overall Improvement Score:  .5

“Analysis.”   We all know that losing Destiny and Paulo are significant losses (although I thought the same thing about losing Cooper and Pole).  And since Ekuale got injured in the spring, I have concerns about the unit and its depth. So, I give the group a -1.

The linebacking corps figures to be faster, but I can’t help but think that its going to take time for that group to adjust to big time college football–especially at the BUCK spot since I view Ivan McLennan as one of the most underrated defensive players to ever put on a WSU uniform.  So, I give that group a -1 as well.

But when you look at the back four, well, it’s the most talented group that we’ve had since 2006.

Couple of points about this group that I think are especially noteworthy.  First, last year’s group was really, really young and inexperienced coming in, so this group figures to be even better technically and schematically than they were in Year 1.  Moreover, the overall scheming of the back four has been well regarded as the strength of our defense overall. So, while the performance of the D-Line is typically the marker of a good defense, this strength of this year’s back four promises to render the 2016 #CougD at least on par with its predecessor.

Lastly–and this should have probably been the subject for an entire post–its important to remember that the Cougar defense “overall” was anything but a consistent force in 2015.  Need proof?  Well, we all know that the Cougar D improved in points allowed last year, moving from about 37 points per game allowed in 2014 to  just under 28 in 2015.

What’s interesting though is how our defense improved as the year progressed.  For instance, in its first five games against power five competition, the 2015 Cougar defense yielded an average of 35.8 points a game (which was essentially on par with 2015).  But in the last six games of Power 5 competition, that number dropped to 23.8  Moreover, if you dare to cheat a bit. and reduce the points allowed in the Washington game to 24 (since 21 of the 45 were offensive turnovers which resulted in touchdowns), that number drops to 20.3 –a number which is just .3 points a game higher than UW which ranked #1 in the conference.

Of course, one reason why we started to allow fewer points was that our “special forces” stopped allowing a touch or two a game on kick-off coverage.  So, if you have the courage to think that the trend of decent kickoff coverage will continue in 2016, then its hard to imagine that the 2016 defense will be worse than the one we saw for the majority of 2015.

Evaluating the Quality of WSU’s Opponents Relative to 2015

My last task in getting a “basic” view of WSU’s potential in 2016 was to rate our opposition relative to their strength/standing in 2015.  Here are my quick takes:

Game 1.     Eastern   (the Same as Portland State=0)

Game 2.   @ Boise State (Better than Rutgers=1)

Game 3.   Idaho  (Worse than Wyoming=-1)

Game 4.  Oregon (Same=0)

Game 5.  @Stanford (Worse=-1)

Game 6.   UCLA (Same=0)

Game 7:  @ASU  (Worse: -1)

Game 8 :  @Oregon State (Same: 0)

Game 9:   Arizona (Better:  +1)

Game 10:  CAL (Worse:  -1)

Game 11:  Colorado (Same: 0)

Game 12:  Washington (Better: +1)

Analysis:  Obviously, entire magazines are written evaluating the relative strengths of each team.  But here’s my view in a nutshell:  WSU went 2-1 in non-conference last year against a slate that wasn’t as formidable as this one. Obviously, the big difference this year is Boise State which is a team that some think will win 10-11 games.  So, if you’re looking for the key swing game of the year, it’s Boise State.

But beyond that particular game, the rest of the schedule is pretty much a wash.  I think Oregon will be just as formidable offensively and will struggle early on defense as they adjust to that 4-3.  Stanford will be good but not as good as last year especially as the adjust to life without Kevin Hogan.  UCLA lost a lot at the skills since last year but figure to improve significantly as Rosen matures. ASU will be worse (perhaps by a lot), OSU will be better but that won’t mean much given how far they’ve fallen, but Arizona figures to be significantly improved.  The good news?  We get them at home on Dad’s weekend.

CAL to me is a bit of a wildcard, but I don’t see how they could be better than last year after having lost Goff and their top 6 receivers.  Colorado will be much improved defensively, but the loss of Nelson Spruce coupled with an lack of an A list set of playmakers figures to limit  their improvement overall (and they may be a tick away from bailing on Mike Mac by season’s end).  And while Washington figures to be much, much better than the 2015 team it fielded for much of the season, I am not sure how much better they will be than the team we faced in Seattle in 2015….

So, when I add up all the pluses and minuses, I get a schedule that in balance is about the same as the one we faced last year. In fact, since two out of our four conference roadies are against teams that finished last in their respective divisions, a case can be made this year’s schedule is actually a bit softer than last year.

Ultimately, when you put two and two together, it appears that this 2016 team figures to be slightly better than the 2015 team, while the 2016 schedule appears to be slightly “easier” than the year prior.  And, at least in my view, that means that WSU should be as competitive in 2016 as it was in 2015, if not more so.

So, put that over under at 9, not including the bowl.

That’s all the time I have for today.  I’ll be back with a few more posts prior to media day in mid July.

All for now. Go Cougs!