Auburn football preview 2013: Catching up on Washington State with CougCenter

James Snook-US PRESSWIRE

It's a long time until football season, but it's never too early to start thinking about Auburn's Week 1 matchup against the Cougars.

It's mid-May. Major League Baseball season is in its opening stages, the NBA and NHL are staging their playoffs and the SEC Baseball Tournament will begin at the Hoover Met in just over a week. Time to preview the 2013 football season!

Auburn opens the year with Washington State, and if we're being honest, we don't know much about the Cougars. Luckily, there are other people on the Internet who do. Even better, they've decided to share their knowledge. Mark Sandritter covers Wazzu for CougCenter and writes about the NFL for SB Nation. He was kind enough to answer a few of our questions and give us some insight on the state of Washington State.

Chris Fuhrmeister for College and Magnolia: Auburn and Washington State are both coming off 3-9 campaigns. In Gus Malzahn's first season, most Tiger fans are hoping for some pretty significant improvement. What's the attitude among Cougar fans going into Year 2 of the Mike Leach era? Are y'all looking for a big step forward?

Mark Sandritter for CougCenter: I think Cougar fans would like to believe the team will be much improved, but we've been down this road many times before, so instead most are fairly pessimistic heading into the season. Many will eventually talk themselves into a five or six-win season, but the truth is WSU will likely be slightly improved on the field and still struggle to win games.

CF: I would imagine Wazzu's success will largely come down to how well the offense performs. Last year, the Cougars averaged just 359.5 yards and 20.4 points per game. How is Leach's offensive-installation process going? Is WSU ready to run his air raid attack at full capacity?

MS: The playbook is in, but the personnel is still preventing Leach's Air Raid from hitting on all cylinders. WSU's offensive line really struggled last season and the Cougars are currently projected to start three and maybe four walk-ons on the offensive line. Many hope WSU will be able to get by with a makeshift offensive line while some of the younger players develop, but that didn't work out very well last season.

CF: Speaking of Leach, are y'all going to trade in the WSU flag for the Jolly Roger to pass around the GameDay sites?

MS: A few pirate flags have popped up at Martin Stadium and around Pullman, but Ol Crimson and Whitey are going to remain fixtures at GameDay. And yes, the GameDay flags have names.

CF: Like Auburn, Washington State will enter the fall with the quarterback race not yet resolved. Junior Connor Halliday saw a good bit of playing time last year, throwing for 1,878 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Is he the favorite to win the job? Do you want him to win it, or would you prefer Austin Apodaca?

MS: Apodaca had a solid spring, but Halliday still has the inside track to the starting job. Physically, Halliday is extremely talented but I'm still not sure he's the best fir for the Air Raid. He's a "gunslinger" who loves to throw deep and often ignored open receivers running underneath routes. That's essentially the opposite of what an Air Raid quarterback needs to do. Leach's offense is designed to take what the defense gives and consistently move the ball.

Halliday did a slightly better job of taking what was available in spring, but we'll see how that translates to the season. Apodaca is talented and has the accuracy to do well in the Air Raid, but jumping from scout team reps to starting on the road at Jordan-Hare is not ideal. Incoming freshman Tyler Bruggman is Leach's first WSU quarterback recruit and some are still holding out hope that he'll arrive on campus ready to start from Day 1.

My money would be on Halliday starting against the Tigers.

CF: What about the defense? The Cougs gave up 425.4 yards and 33.7 points per contest in 2012. Are you expecting much improvement? What kind of game plan does coordinator Mike Breske like to employ?

MS: Considering the defenses WSU ran out in the previous few seasons, last year's defense was actually a significant improvement. The defense got better as the season went along and would have been better had the offense not been so bad. There is a lot of youth on the defensive side of the ball, so the hope is the defense continues to improve. Mike Leach teams are known for offense, but WSU's defense could end up being the better unit next season.

Mike Breske runs an aggressive 3-4 scheme. WSU likes to blitz and matchup the BUCK linebacker in a favorable pass rush situation, but they will also mix things up. The Cougars rotate a lot of players and will mix up schemes to give the offense different looks. WSU's front seven is the strength and if healthy the Cougars should be solid along the defensive line and at linebacker.

The secondary is another issue entirely and unless things drastically improve, the Cougars may struggle to defend the pass again in 2013.

CF: What will be Washington State's biggest strength in 2013? Its biggest weakness?

MS: Run defense should be a strength next season as WSU actually did a solid job of defending the run in 2012. They allowed 3.5 yards per carry over the final four games, and nearly all of the key contributors in the front seven will return next season. Depth is an issue along the defensive line, but the starters are solid and good run defenders. The linebackers can be exposed in pass coverage, but are much better defending the run.

WSU's running game last year was atrocious so they could be 100 percent better and still be awful. The offensive line is the biggest issue as there weren't many holes to run through last season. Running back Teondray Caldwell showed flashes last season, but struggled to stay on the field. WSU averaged 29.1 rushing yards per game in 2012, even if you take out sacks, the Cougars were historically bad at running the football.

CF: What's the first thing Cougar fans think of when they think of Auburn? If it's CHEATIN' CAM NEWTON, what's the second thing?

MS: I mostly think of Bo Jackson, but that's probably because I've watched Bo Knows multiple times. I also have vivid flashbacks of Kenny Irons destroying WSU in 2006.

CF: It's a long way off, but what are your thoughts on the Auburn game right now. Care to offer a ridiculously-too-early prediction?

MS: I'm looking forward to the game more for the reason of "hey, actual football!" than "woo, we're going to win!" I thought WSU had a good shot to win the season opener last season, then they got thrashed by BYU on national television. Will the same happen again this season? Probably, but it still beats the hell out of the offseason.

It may be the blind optimism talking, but I think WSU will be better next season. Will that be enough to come away with a victory? I would say no, but I think the game will be closer than the 40-14 Auburn win in 2006. Let's go with 34-24 Auburn.

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