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7 Washington State With a potent offense that powered a 10-win season in 2001, the Cougars are the team to beat in the Pac-10

In a matter of weeks last fall Mike Price, whose Cougars hadn't
had a winning season since 1997, went from a man on the hot seat
to Pac-10 coach of the year. Washington State stunned just about
everyone in college football by jumping to a 7-0 start en route
to a 10-2 record. A year later, with 12 returning starters, it's
no surprise that the Cougars are shaping up as the best team in
the conference.

Eager to prove that it's not a one-year wonder, Washington State
has many reasons to be optimistic. For one, seven starters, led
by senior quarterback Jason Gesser (3,010 yards, 26 touchdowns),
are back from an offense that averaged 35 points per game. For
another, the Cougars have a pair of top-flight defensive stoppers
in junior ends D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown.

Once a weakness, defense has become a strength for Washington
State. When his unit was beset with injuries and academic
casualties two years ago, defensive coordinator Bill Doba was
forced to play 11 underclassmen. "You don't win with freshmen,"
Doba says, "but we just didn't have anybody else." The Cougars
had the best secondary in the Pac-10 a year ago (26
interceptions), and that gave the young defensive line a chance
to mature. This season, with Acholonu and Brown stepping up,
Doba hopes the line will stabilize the defense until the young
linebackers get comfortable. Doba has high hopes for junior
linebacker Ira Davis, who showed flashes of brilliance in
limited action last season.

Somebody else likes the Cougars' long-range prospects: ABC Sports
asked Washington State and UCLA to move their Nov. 16 game to a
featured time slot on Dec. 7, the last weekend of the regular
season. "People don't look at Washington State the same way they
do Nebraska or Florida State," Brown says. "When I think of them,
I think of winning, great coaches and great athletes. We can have
the same thing at Washington State." --I.M.

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/GETTY IMAGES AT THE THROTTLE One of seven starters back on offense, Gesser leads an attack that averaged 432.2 yards and 35 points.


2001 RECORD: 10-2 (6-2, T2 in Pac-10)
FINAL RANKING: No. 10 AP, No. 11 coaches' poll


Points scored last season by the Cougars defense: five touchdowns
on interception returns and two on fumble recoveries.

An opposing coach's view

A veteran lineup has to prove that last year was no fluke

"They are strong at most skill positions and might have the most
experience of any team in the conference.... Quarterback Jason
Gesser doesn't look very pretty out there, but he works hard and
gets the job done. He has tons of receivers to throw to,
including 6'6" senior Mike Bush, which is good because the
tailback position is a big question mark.... The defense is
solid. Their scheme is fairly simple, but they give a lot of
different looks.... The jury is still out on whether this team
will be as good as last year."

Strength: 59th

Aug. 31 NEVADA
Sept. 7 IDAHO
14 at Ohio State
28 at California
Oct. 5 USC
12 at Stanford
26 at Arizona
Nov. 2 Arizona State
Dec. 7 at UCLA