As two more leave Pac-12, WSU preps for 1st kickoff

Sep. 2—A couple hours before the Washington State football team boarded its flight to Fort Collins, Colo., Friday morning — players with heads looking forward, Gatorades in hand and earbuds on — news broke that Stanford and Cal would leave the Pac-12 for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The move by the two California schools doesn't come as a surprise considering the conference and two universities had been in discussions for weeks.

The timing, however, leaves the Pac-12 with just two teams left beyond 2023 — WSU and Oregon State — one day before the Cougars play their first football game of the season. WSU kicks off against Colorado State at 4 p.m. Pacific (CBS Sports Network) today at Canvas Stadium.

"The departures from the Pac-12 by Stanford and California do not come as a surprise," WSU said in a statement. "... We will continue to fight for Washington State as we explore all options to secure the best possible future for Cougar Athletics."

Meanwhile, WSU coach Jake Dickert has been trying to shut out the outside noise and get his team prepared to face the Rams.

"I think the biggest thing I want to do is double down on the now," Dickert said earlier this week.

Let's take a look at what the conference movement means for WSU as well as a couple things to watch for in today's season opener.

What's next for WSU?

WSU President Kirk Schulz has said the university's three main options are rebuilding the Pac-12, joining the Mountain West Conference or joining the American Athletic Conference.

Rebuilding the Pac-12 seems slim with only two current members committed beyond this season.

Also on Friday, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said in a statement the conference was no longer exploring options on the West Coast.

That means the Mountain West seems the most likely landing spot for WSU, but nothing is certain in this ever-changing college football landscape.

3 keys to the game for WSU

Fast start: WSU trailed 10-0 against Idaho in the first quarter of its season opener last year before rallying for a 24-17 win. Emphasizing a quick start has been a focus in fall practice.

Pressure the QB: The Cougars had seven sacks in last year's game against the Rams. WSU's edges Brennan Jackson, Ron Stone and crew will need to set the tone early and not allow CSU quarterback Clay Millen time to find his prolific wideout Tory Horton.

A chance to separate at wide receiver: Three of WSU's key wide receivers are no stranger to Mountain West cornerbacks. Josh Kelly (Fresno State), Kyle Williams (UNLV) and Isaiah Hamilton (San Jose State) were all in the Rams' conference last season and will be eager to show they belong with the Cougs.

Position to watch: tight end

WSU brought back the tight end position last season for the first time in 11 years.

But the position group didn't end up being as big of a factor as the offense was hoping for in the first year of the Coug Raid. Billy Riviere led the group with 12 catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Now, with new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle at the helm, WSU is hoping for a bigger splash out of its tight ends.

Junior Cooper Mathers will get the start against the Rams because of his versatility. But Dickert expects to also use Riviere, sophomore Andre Dollar and senior Cameron Johnson.

"You're going to see them all, but I think Coop has done the best job of doing it all," Dickert said.

Odds and ends

The Cougars are 10-point favorites against the Rams and the over/under is 54.5, according to ... WSU is 1-1 all-time against CSU. The Cougs won last year's contest 38-7. ... Dickert and CSU coach Jay Norvell have some history in the Mountain West. Dickert was the defensive coordinator at Wyoming in 2019 when Norvell was head coach at Nevada. The Cowboys defeated the Wolf Pack 31-3 that year. ... Dickert said the Cougs got through fall camp with zero concussions and just one soft-tissue injury.

Quote of note

"There's been an energy, there's been a juice and a want-to for these guys to get out on the field because you don't get a second chance at Game 1." — WSU coach Jack Dickert.

Wiebe may be contacted at (208) 848-2277, or on Twitter @StephanSports.