By: Rajan Nanavati
If you asked the common non-West Coast-residing college football fan to name the best team in the Pac-12, you’d probably hear the usual suspects: USC (even though they might be on the verge of changing head coaches), Oregon (even though they have a losing conference record at the moment), Stanford (losers of four of their last six game), or maybe Washington (2-2 since mid-October).
How many guesses do you think it would take before said fan would mention Washington State?
And yet, as we cross halfway through November, and as each college team has two or maybe three games left on their current 2018 schedule, the Washington State Cougars are not only sitting atop the Pac-12 conference with a 9-1 record (including a 6-1 record in-conference), but with a win over the cross-state Huskies on Thanksgiving weekend, they’re not only guaranteed a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, but also have a great chance to make the race for the last spot in the College Football Playoffs that much more interesting.
In his seventh season in Pullman, head coaching ruffian Mike Leach is in the midst of his best coaching job since back at his days at Texas Tech. Unsurprisingly, the Cougars average more passing yards per game than any team in the nation (it’s no secret that Leach views running the football as little more than a total waste of time), and they’re among the top 20 teams in the nation in scoring (averaging over 37 points per game).
And unlike the schools in Seattle, Eugene, or Los Angeles, he’s doing all of this with a group of players that isn’t comprised of guys with an all-but-guaranteed career of playing football on Sunday’s. Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew has thrown for more yards than any player in the nation, but he wasn’t even ranked by most high school recruiting services when he enrolled at East Carolina University. Minshew — whose career went from East Carolina to the JuCo ranks to Pullman — has teamed with Leach to win 22 of their last 29 games against Pac-12 opponents.
While the only thing you can really assume in college football is that you can’t assume anything, let’s assume the Cougars defeat the University of Arizona this Saturday. That puts all eyes squarely on the Apple Cup on Thanksgiving weekend. That’s the de facto “win and in” (to the Pac-12 Championship game) matchup, and Washington State hasn’t beaten Washington in their last five matchups.
If the Cougars were to snap said streak, that would give them three wins against opponents that were ranked entering the game. Their lone loss this season, was to the aforementioned Trojans, dropping a wild 39-36 contest in Los Angeles when USC scored the go-ahead touchdown midway through the 4th quarter, and the Cougars’ 10-play, 53-yard drive ended in a blocked field goal, which would’ve tied the game if successful.
If Georgia were to pick up a second loss (likely in the SEC Championship game against Alabama), Michigan lost to Ohio State in their annual showdown, and Oklahoma lost their last game of the season against West Virginia, does that open up the door for Washington State to make it in to the College Football Playoffs?
While the selection committee would perhaps favor the winner of the Wolverines-Buckeyes game as the team to clinch the last spot (pending the results of the Big 10 Championship game), what if Notre Dame lost to Syracuse or USC before season’s end?
We know it’s easy to forget about Washington State in the grand scheme of things, but if things break a certain way, we won’t be overlooking them much longer.