This is a continuation of Pt. 1, published yesterday here on All Coug’d Up.
Let’s keep in mind we’re talking about an undermanned WSU team that played Sagarin’s absolute toughest schedule in the nation in 2013. Some fans love to talk about where the Cougars would have been had they taken away Idaho and Southern Utah, but in order to be fair, you’d have to take away every other FBS-level team’s lowest ranked opponents (and believe it or not plenty of teams played a weaker slate of bottom opponents) to match it up, because again without debate, the rest of WSU’s schedule was the most difficult road to hoe in all the land.
The Cougs still stacked up pretty well compared to expectations over the course of the season, better in fact. Remember that feeling as the Cougs kneeled out the clock at USC? How about the elation as the ball sailed wide of the mark on the last play against Arizona? When Dom Williams ran away from the Utah secondary to ultimately seal a bowl game appearance? Those were all moments that weren’t suppose to happen, but they did anyway, because of Mike Leach.
So the question for me is; where would this team have been had they played an ‘average’ schedule like most of the other teams? Where would they have been if they had started with Rutgers, for example, rather than the nation’s eventual BCS runner-up? Or if they switched Colorado in for or had Washington at home instead of an Arizona State?
There’s little doubt (for me at least) they would have out-performed even their final win tally, perhaps ending the year in San Francisco in a rematch from Leach’s first game against BYU. But like you would expect of a top producing coach, CML simply isn’t worried about all that, “we just have to get better at making the routine plays, play in and play out” he says repetitively. That means find a way to block out the distractions that encompass you and find a way to get your job done regardless of who’s across from you or where you are.
This is a big part of why I love guys like Leach and Pete Carroll, even though they are not even close in coaching style. Excuses don’t get it done and they both get the most out of whatever limitations they possess athletically with their teams. It’s about the process of challenging yourself to be great with what you have to work with. But as both coaches will quickly preach to anyone who would ask, talent and system-fits are still very much a necessity to win football games on a consistent basis. What would the Seahawks be without Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson making that offense go? The O-line isn’t premier and many would argue they aren’t, in fact premier themselves but they study and work their butts off and as a result are two of the most clutch performers the National Football League has to offer. It goes down the line for guys like Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and even former Husky Jermaine Kearse (who saw that performance coming in the Super Bowl?).
For a reference, as we know the Hawks went 7-9 in each of Carroll’s first two seasons with inferior players in the system, only to explode in these past two with more talent around the field. But even though the Hawks are deeper than any team in the league, they aren’t regarded as ‘superior’ by any stretch, save for two or three positions. Remember all that Seahawk talent was heavily scrutinized when it was picked up by the Seahawks’ brass.
What’s that have to do with the college game? Pete Carroll did the exact same thing with USC at about the same time that WSU went into the can. The eventually unstoppable Trojans went 6-6 in Carroll’s first year in 2001 and they had more talent on their backup depth chart than WSU had in it’s 2013 starting lineup. In similar fashion to the Seahawks these past two years, Tommy Trojan exploded into national prominence for nearly a decade of Carroll. It doesn’t matter what you think of the Reggie Bush situation or any of that, it’s a fact the man knows how to coach and changed that program with a relentless effort to instill himself on the program.
Of course that level is where CML and Co. would love to get to, but it’s a process worthy of some patience while the man behind the Pirate smooths out the transmission under the hood. After watching the Seahawks this season, patience to win in either Pullman or Seattle for the college versions of football will likely be in short supply, which I guess is another reason I wanted to draw the comparison. Don’t get impatient with the process.
Leach is finally in a similar position with his team as a lot of other great coaches start with when they take over a program, but let’s get back to the Leach-on-Leach team comparisons since they relate more here. The Cougars certainly didn’t possess anything such as Texas Tech from a talent-vs-the-rest-of-the-conference standpoint in either of his first two seasons here. Yet Leach is doing admirably setting this team up with kids that he needs to do the things that he wants to do.
You can look at the roster and the recruits coming in and see that the Cougars will once again look like a completely different football team than a year ago when they step on the field against Rutgers to begin the 2014 football season. Size will have doubled for the second year in a row and the athleticism will be a mile or two advanced from that which you saw in 2013. Getting back to the lack of a running game, those aforementioned boosts will be particularly apparent on the O-line and at the running back position.
At Tech, the biggest jump in any of his ten seasons was between years two and three when a) Leach had an experienced senior quarterback, b) infused some of his necessary athletes into the system and c) had everyone on board after a couple seasons of measured improvement. Not only did that 2002 Tech team team rebound from that terrible, field goal-filled loss to Iowa in San Antonio the previous post season to put up a 9-5 record, but they went on to annihilate Clemson 55-15 in the Tangerine Bowl. Is it fair to expect that same jump from Washington State in year three? Probably not, but it’s also not fair to think that type of jump can’t or won’t happen. We’re talking about the 2008 Big 12 Coach of the Year.
So if you love to be a Cougar optimist like I do, it’s nice to know that there are plenty of reasons to be so going into 2014. Anyone can jump on the negativity bus and predict that the Cougs will once again climb into the cellar of the Pac-12 Conference after what was perceived nationally as a ‘bust’ recruiting class compared to the rest of the conference, but people in-the-know realize that Leach and the Cougs have already turned a corner that they weren’t supposed to have turned yet. You’d better believe there isn’t a coach that will sleep when Washington State is coming up on the schedule from now on, and plenty will come out of that scrap having to answer the tougher questions in their post-games.
We have one of the best coaches in the country folks, we really should stop acting like these are the ‘same old Cougs’. The last time we possessed such a coach, it took Mike Price some time to get going too, if you’ll remember. It all ended in two Rose Bowls in five years, and Leach faces far fewer challenges in presenting a viable Pac-12 program to recruits than Price did. Personally, I’m pretty amped about the near future, and I think we all have quite the reason to be.