We’ve already looked at opening night’s undercards for this evening. We spotlighted a key swing game in the SEC East race that, yes, includes the up-and-coming Vanderbilt Commodroes. While there is entertainment value in all those contests, it’s not tonight’s Main Event: The Return of the Pirate. Anybody who is a college football junkie who lives and breathes this sport 24/7 year round has to be totally lathered up over seeing Mike Leach back on the sidelines as head coach of Washington State tonight when the Cougs take on BYU in Provo.
We all know Leach’s story. He put together an insane, pedal-to-metal, four vertical offense that nearly lifted little old Texas Tech to the top of the Big 12. While he never won the league, he always had winning teams, he always had his club at the very least in the top half of the league and, most importantly, they were always entertaining and worth watching. Playing a patsie? You just had to tune in to see what 60 points and 600 yards in passing offense looked like. Playing a power? You had to tune in to see if his style could take his upstart program past a big boy. While his charges took it on the chin against the Texas and Oklahomas of the world, he was finally putting together a more complete team that could beat those programs. In fact, he beat at least one of them in each of his final three years in Lubbock. When this offense was humming it could drop 70 points on any unsuspecting conference foe. Just ask Nebraska.
But, then our fun ended in the Craig/Adam Jones scandal. Leach may have been exonerated in the long run, but he was already kicked out of his job. After a two-year exile, he’s back on the sidelines tonight, ready to unleash his offense on the Pac-12, a conference thats no stranger to a score-points-first mentality. It was good enough that college football was coming back today. But Leach’s return this evening is a pretty damn sweet cheery to top it all off.
Can he win immediately in Pullman, however? The Cougs have been one of the worst programs in college football in recent years. They’ve become, gulp, the Indiana of the Pac-12. They havent had a winning record or been in a bowl game since 2003. Their four wins last year was their best in five seasons. They’ve won a total of four league games over the last four seasons. While Leach improved Texas Tech’s profile and took them to another level, they were at least a consistent bowl program when he took over from Spikes Dykes in the late 1990s. That wasnt a rebuilding job. This is.
The good news is the Pac-12 appears to be wide open after USC and Oregon at the top. I am not sure a ton really separates teams 5-12 in this league and an enhancement and upgrade as significant as Leach in the head coaching role might be enough to climb the ladder quickly. He’s got a quarterback in Jeff Tuel who earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2010 before injuries curtailed his season a year ago. So the offense has its big armed QB already. It also has its game changing receiver in Marquis Wilson who hauled in 82 catches for 1388 yards a year ago. He was a freshman all-american in 2010 and first team all league a year ago. Outside of Michael Crabtree, Wilson might be the best flanker Leach has ever had in his offense. And he’s got a burgeoning talent lining up opposite him at the #2 WR spot in true freshman Gabriel Marks, a 4-star recruit out of Venice Beach. Rivals listed him as the 87th overall player in the 2012 class and #13 ranked wide receiver. He’s been a star all August during practices, with whispers that he’s already better than Wilson. I’ll be watching to see if he can live up to this hype. Along with three starters back on the offensive line, the pieces are ready to go to get this aerial attack rolling immediately. They’ll have to figure something out in the running attack with James Montgomery getting first crack at carries. The interesting thing about Leach’s attack at Tech was despite the four vertical love, the running game was never ignored, even if it had to be manufactured a bit with new wrinkles. Dont forget Taurean Henderson ran for 1,000 yards while catching 90 balls one season. Tailbacks will have a role. The interesting thing to watch here is how the hiring of pistol offense afficiando Jim Mastro impacts the running game. Leach never ran the Pistol at Lubbock, but expect to see it in the Palousse. Bottomline, I expect big things from the offense almost right away. The Cougs improved a bit a year ago overall and scored 29.8 points a game. I expect them to break well past the 30-point per game mark and be one of the league’s best offense.
Whether or not they can stop anyone, however, is anybody’s guess. The bad news is they gave up 31.8 points per game a year ago. They good news is that was the lowest figure since 2006 for the Cougs and they return seven starters, including all four starters in the secondary.
The focus here is on Leach’s return, so I dont mean to give BYU the short end of the stick. They should give Leach’s debut a helluva test on both sides of the ball. That’s obvious since the Provo Cougars are 13.5-point chalk heading into tonight. Like Wassau, they have 14 starters back, seven on both sides of the ball. Unlike Wassau, those returning starters were the core of a 10-win team, not a 4-win outfit. Riley Nelson is a good little QB who wont have any issues triggering this attack against WSU. Cody Hoffman and Ross Apu combined for 19 TD grabs a year ago. Defensively, they permitted 21 or less points in nine games last year. Their playmaker on that side of the ball is LB Kyle Van Noy who had 7 sacks and 10 QB hurries a year ago. They’re a little non descript at the corners, however, which sounds like a problem when going against a Leach attack. One CB is a new starter, while the other had a pretty average season in the lineup a year ago after arriving from the JUCO ranks. This is a huge game for BYU. They have road games at Utah, Boise, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech this season. I dont think they win any of those. A loss tonight means being perfect the rest of the way or pulling off an upset in one of those roadies just to have a winning record.
Getting back to Leach, a few tidbits from his Lubbock tenure. He made a bowl game in all of his 10 years. He never had a losing record in conference play. Annual bowl games and consistent winning conference records are not part of Washington State’s tradition. In the two seasons at Texas Tech since he left, the Raiders missed out on the postseason once and have had losing league marks in each year with a 5-12 combined record. Leach’s teams were a solid investment at home logging a 30-20 ATS mark, but were always a bit wobbly straight up and against the number on the road. Despite that, we’re pulling the trigger on him and Wassau tonight. It’s the least I can do to honor the return of one of my favorite college football personalities. Some send gifts. I bet on your team.
The Pick: Wassau +13.5. Book It.