The Washington State Cougars get their 2018 season started with a road game against the Wyoming Cowboys. Kickoff is set for 3:30 EST on Saturday, September 1, at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyoming. Fans can watch the game on CBS Sports Network.
The Week 1 college football odds show us that Washington State is a 3.5-point favorite on the road. However, the Cougars opened at -7.5, so early betting has heavily favored the Cowboys.
The Cougars are coming off another solid season under Mike Leach. Wazzou has been to a bowl game in each of the last three seasons, going 26-13 during that span. However, the Cougars have yet to reach the top of the Pac-12 North division during Leach’s tenure. They have also suffered heavy losses on both sides of the ball, leaving some to suspect whether this could be a rebuilding year for Washington State.
Wyoming, meanwhile, got their season started last week with a 29-7 road win over New Mexico State. The Cowboys went 8-5 last season, but that was with top-10 pick Josh Allen leading the way. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal started the opener and looks like a viable successor to Allen. On the heels of back-to-back eight-win seasons under Craig Bohl, the Cowboys appear to be moving in the right direction regardless of who’s playing quarterback.
These two teams last met on the football field in 2015, with the Cougars winning at home 31-14. However, both programs have come a long way since that game. Also, the series now shifts to Wyoming, giving the Cowboys a home game against a Pac-12 team for the second straight year after they lost to Oregon at home last season.
A lot of people are buying into Wyoming after they dominated New Mexico State in their opener. But I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon, even with the Cowboys playing at home. Washington State still has Pac-12 talent and an offensive scheme that’s always capable of scoring points against just about any team in the country. With the line coming down, I feel comfortable leaning toward Washington State to cover 3.5 points.
I’ll admit that Leach and the Cougars are facing some questions on offense this season. Quarterback Luke Falk graduated and last year’s backup Tyler Hilinski passed away in tragic fashion over the winter. That leaves Washington State with no obvious starter at quarterback. In fact, Leach is refusing to name his starter publicly before the Wyoming game. The depth chart lists four players with an “or” between each of their names, so it could conceivably be any of the four, although East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew is the favorite.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Cougars bring back three of their top four receivers from last season. Tay Martin is one to watch closely after he finished strong in 2017. Wazzou also has a number of capable receivers in the slot who could help create mismatches against the Wyoming defense. The WSU offense doesn’t usually rely on its running game for much, but junior James Williams has shown plenty of promise the past couple of seasons in a backup role and could take a few carries if needed.
The biggest reason people are jumping in the Wyoming bandwagon is that the Cowboys return eight starters from a defense that gave up less than 18 points per game last year while leading the country with 38 forced turnovers. On paper, the Wyoming defense looks good. The Cowboys also looked good in real life last week while holding New Mexico State to 135 total yards and just seven first downs.
But that was New Mexico State, and this week they’ll face Washington State. The Cougars have far more talent and are forcing the Cowboys to prepare for four different quarterbacks. It’s anything but a given that the Wyoming defense will be able to contain the WSU offense for four quarters. Remember, they gave up 49 points at home to Oregon last season, so clearly there is a talent gap between Wyoming and teams from the Pac-12.
Finally, the Wyoming offense also has some questions despite a solid performance last week. Vander Waal impressed, but he wasn’t asked to do that much. The Cowboys were able to do most of their damage on the ground. Even with Wyoming having a veteran offensive line, the Cougars have a lot more size up front than the Cowboys usually see in the Mountain West. Washington State is also loaded at linebacker, so they should keep the Wyoming rushing attack contained and force Vander Waal to make some throws.
I do believe the Wyoming defense is good enough to make things interesting. But the air-raid offense that Leach runs is tough to keep under wraps for 60 minutes. I also don’t think the Cowboys will have the same kind of success on offense as they enjoyed against New Mexico State. Eventually, the Cowboys will have to force the issue and throw the ball downfield in order to keep up. That’s when the Cougars will get separation and be able to cover the 3.5-point spread.