Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 countdown: No. 24 Washington State

Dr. Saturday
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/230552/" data-ylk="slk:Luke Falk">Luke Falk</a> has thrown for more than 10,000 yards during his time under Mike Leach at Washington State. (Getty)
Luke Falk has thrown for more than 10,000 yards during his time under Mike Leach at Washington State. (Getty)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 8-5 (7-2 Pac-12)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 9 vs. Boise State
Biggest conference game: Nov. 25 at Washington

Key returning player: QB Luke Falk
Key departed player: WR Gabe Marks

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Three things to know about Washington State

• Everybody knows Mike Leach’s teams can pass the ball. That won’t be different in 2017 with the return of 10,000-yard passer Luke Falk for his senior season. But just because the Cougars’ offense skews toward the pass doesn’t mean it can’t run. In fact, the Cougars were extremely proficient on the ground in 2016, with three backs — James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks — averaging well over five yards per attempt while having a pretty even distribution of carries.

Williams: 102 carries, 584 yards (5.7 ypc), 6 TDs
Morrow: 90 carries, 575 yards (6.4 ypc), 5 TDs
Wicks: 88 carries, 475 yards (5.4 ypc), 11 TDs

All three — who also combined for 125 catches, by the way — are back in 2017, when Morrow and Wicks will be seniors and Williams will only be a sophomore. The three will run behind one of the better offensive lines in the Pac-12, too, led by All-American guard Cody O’Connell.

“I think we have the most productive backs in the league. If you add up the yards, we had the most productive backs in the league. I think it went us, Oregon, Stanford. That’s good company right there,” Leach said at Pac-12 Media Days.

Their presence is key as the passing game has to replace the two leading pass-catchers in program history: Gabe Marks (Career: 316 catches, 3,453 yards, 37 TDs) and River Cracraft (Career: 218 catches, 2,701 yards, 20 TDs). Tavares Martin, who was second on the team with 64 catches, 728 yards and seven touchdowns, is back for his junior year.

• Washington State has opened its last two seasons with disasters, but rebounded both times. In 2015, the Cougars lost the home opener to FCS Portland State, 24-17, before winning seven of their next nine and ultimately finishing 9-4. The 2016 season opened up with another home FCS loss, this time to Eastern Washington, 45-42. A close loss at Boise State followed before WSU rattled off eight straight.

Leach said getting off to a better start is a matter of experience.

“Last year we were predominantly freshmen and sophomores, and I think we struggled as far as adjusting to being on the field for the first time in some cases. We did some really good things in practice. Go out there, first game, college football, first time. All of a sudden, eyes got wide and we tried to do too much,” Leach said.

“But then I think that we assembled ourselves pretty good as a team as we played together some more. In the last two years, even though we’ve got quite a bit of youth, I’d have to look at it, but we won as many games, I think, maybe more than anybody the last two years as far as the conference goes. We’re a work in progress, like anybody. But we’re getting better.”

Perhaps Leach’s bunch will have better luck with its FCS opponent this year with Montana State (4-7 in 2016) traveling to Pullman. That game is the first of five straight at home to open the year. Boise State is never easy, but there’s a good chance Wazzu is 4-0 when Pac-12 favorites USC come to town for a Friday night game on Sept. 29. But the price of a fortuitous open to the schedule is a difficult close. WSU plays five of its final seven games on the road, including at Oregon and Washington. The Stanford game, however, will be at Martin Stadium.

• WSU’s defense continues to improve under Alex Grinch. Grinch seemed like sort of an out-of-nowhere hire when Leach brought him over from Missouri in January 2015. He hadn’t been a coordinator at any level and was wrapping up his third season as Missouri’s safeties coach after stints at Wyoming and New Hampshire.

Washington State linebacker Peyton Pelluer has combined for 194 tackles over the last two seasons. (AP)
Washington State linebacker Peyton Pelluer has combined for 194 tackles over the last two seasons. (AP)

Since then, the Cougars went from No. 97 in total defense in 2014 to No. 62 in 2016. That’s a pretty solid turnaround. The defense still gives up a lot of yards, but was able to help its cause by causing 23 turnovers, tied for the fourth-best total in the Pac-12, and getting to ballcarriers in the backfield. With nine starters back on the unit, including most of the defensive line and linebacking group (Peyton Pelluer is a standout at inside linebacker), there’s a chance for more growth in 2017.

However, WSU needs to do a better job getting to the quarterback. The team’s 19 sacks (in 13 games) was 108th in the country. If WSU can get after the quarterback with a bit more regularity, it should help a pretty thin secondary that allowed 271.7 yards per game last year — No. 112 nationally.

Leach was asked at Media Days if there was a particular unit he expects to improve. His answer? The secondary.

For more Washington State news, visit WazzouWatch.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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