Are the Washington State Cougars Real CFP Contenders?

Washington State hasn’t been on the national college football radar since 2002, when they went 10-3 and made a Rose Bowl appearance. But suddenly the Cougars are drawling national attention after beating No. 5 USC 30-27 on Friday night.

Washington State has now started the season 5-0. That said, they’re contenders for the Pac-12 title and also have a shot at earning a College Football Playoff (CFP) spot.

Of course, we’re only five weeks through the 2017-18 season. And this begs the question of whether or not the Cougars are a serious contender.

Let’s discuss this matter below by analyzing the USC victory along with the challenges that Washington State will face as the season moves on.

First Major Win in the Mike Leach Era

Topping the Trojans is not only Washington State’s biggest win of the year, but it’s also the most-important victory in the 5-year Mike Leach era.

washington-state-cfp-2Some say that USC simply didn’t deserve to win this game. But the Cougars must be given credit for standing in with a highly talented team for 60 minutes. Washington State did what USC’s last 13 opponents couldn’t do by winning.

“These are once-in-a-lifetime moments,” WSU quarterback Luke Falk told the Seattle Times. “I’m definitely going to enjoy it with teammates tonight. Couldn’t be more proud.”

Prior to Friday, the 16th-ranked Cougers had never notched a marquee win under Leach. And they’ve certainly had their chances since he took over the program in 2012. Washington State has:

  • Lost to Oregon three straight times when the Ducks were No. 2 overall.
  • Been beaten by Stanford when they were ranked No. 5 and No. 8.
  • Lost to a No. 10 Colorado Buffaloes team.
  • Were defeated by the No. 5 Washington Huskies last year.

What’s even more painful is that some of these losses were close heartbreaks. The best example is when they missed a last-second field goal to beat Stanford in 2015.

But this past week was different because the Cougars played with a mental and physical toughness that they haven’t exhibited in the past.

For starters, they did a good job of containing USC quarterback Sam Darnold, who’s projected as the top NFL quarterback prospect.

washington-state-cfp-3Granted, this wasn’t Darnold’s finest performance as he finished with 15-of-29 passing for no touchowns and one interception. But the Washington State defensive line was dominant and played a large role in his struggles.

Darnold was able to limit Washington State to two sacks thanks to his elusiveness. But this is misleading because the Cougars constantly pressured him throughout the game. This includes when linebacker Jahad Woods ended the game with a strip-sack on Darnold late in the fourth quarter.

Moving to offense, Falk and running back Jamal Morrow both had strong games. Falk passed for 340 yards while completing 34-of-51 passes. Morrow rushed for 91 yards on just six carries.

Perhaps more impressive than the stats is how resilient Washington State was throughout the game. Here are some examples of what the Cougars had to deal with:

  • USC running back Ronald Jones ran for an 86-yard touchdown to give USC a 14-10 lead.
  • Falk was intercepted on Washington State’s own 3-yard-line (Cougars held them to a field goal).
  • Falk converted on a fourth-and-two play to lead a late touchdown drive.
  • Converting on fourth-and-13 to eventually get a go-ahead field goal (30-27 score).

These examples show that Washington State is not only talented, but also able to deal with pressure-packed moments.

Washington State Gains National Relevance

washington-state-winThis is the first time in the last 15 years that WSU has defeated the Trojans in Pullman. And it’s the first time in the last 25 years that they’ve beaten a top-5 team.

That said, it’s no surprise fans rushed the field following the upset victory over USC.

Now the question is where Washington State will rank in the AP top 25 poll. Most expect them to leap into the top 10 and become a talking point in the CFP race.

Let’s look ahead at Washington State’s remaining schedule before discussing their CFP chances:

Sat, Oct 7 @ Oregon (4-1)
Fri, Oct 13 @ Cal (3-2)
Sat, Oct 21 vs Colorado (3-2)
Sat, Oct 28 @ Arizona (2-2)
Sat, Nov 4 vs Stanford (3-2)
Sat, Nov 11 @ #20 Utah (4-0)
Sat, Nov 25 @ #6 Washington (5-0)

Mike Leach won’t want his squad celebrating too long. After all, they have some tough remaining games. And they’ll likely need to win every one if they’re going take the Pac-12 title and earn a CFP spot.

First off, they must travel to Eugene to face Oregon. The Ducks lost at Arizona State, but they’re still a tough team.

Washington State finishes with a gauntlet to end their Pac-12 season, including games vs. Stanford, at Utah, and at Washington.

The Huskies will present the biggest test because they’re in the national title picture. And the Cougars will certainly be an underdog in this contest.

Stanford will be a difficult game because they feature Brice Love, one of the nation’s best running backs. Love is currently on a blazing pace with 1,088 rushing yards on only 98 carries (11.1 YPC).

Utah is going to provide one more hurdle. The undefeated Utes own road wins over BYU and Arizona, and could make some noise in the Pac-12.

Realistically, though, Washington State could win all of their games leading up to the Washington contest. I think that the Huskies have a good chance to win at home. But the Cougars have proven that they’re capable of beating talented teams thanks to the USC victory.

This being said, don’t be surprised if they run the table and land their first-ever CFP bid.