During his tenure at Washington State, head coach Mike Leach has done a remarkable job in turning the Cougars into a winning football team.

Now, Leach and his staff are striving to take the program to another level.

This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado's opponents, with this installment focusing on the Cougars, who are hoping to make a run at a Pac-12 North title that has eluded them. CU visits the Cougars on Oct. 21.

"We just have to keep getting better," Leach said in a Pac-12 teleconference in May. "We have to steadily improve. We've grown the last two years, but we have a ways to go and we still have a lot of young players on this team."

When Leach arrived in Pullman in 2012, he took over a team that had won just nine games in the previous four years combined. Then, he went through three consecutive losing seasons (although he took the Cougars to the New Mexico Bowl in 2013).

Over the last two years, however, Washington State is 17-9 and its 13-5 Pac-12 record is second only to Stanford (14-4) during that time.

Wazzu is seeking its first conference title since 2002, however, and enters this season with hopes of changing that.

While they will have to contend with rival Washington (the defending champion) and perennial power Stanford in the North, the Cougars feature one of the best quarterbacks in the country and a defense that keeps getting better.


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Senior Luke Falk completed a remarkable 70 percent of his passes last season (nationally, only Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma was better) for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns.

Falk has been masterful in running Leach's offense the past two seasons and is a candidate for every award given to quarterbacks.

While Falk lost his top receiver (Gabe Marks, who caught more passes than anyone in Pac-12 history), Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack are back after combining for 99 catches last year.

The running back trio of James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks is also back. They combined for 1,634 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground and 125 catches for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns through the air. Keith Harrington, who missed most of last season with an injury, is also back and makes that group even better.

Defensively, nine starters are back, including standout defensive end Hercules Mata'afa and linebacker Peyton Pelluer.

While Leach is known for offense, his defense has improved in each of the past two seasons. Last year, the Cougars were third in the Pac-12 against the run.

The tools are there for Wazzu to have another strong season. Catch a few breaks and the Cougars just might make a run at the top of the North.

CU opponent preview: Washington State Cougars

Date with CU: Oct. 21, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., time TBA

Head coach: Mike Leach, 6th season (29-34; 113-77 career)

Series: CU leads 6-4

Cougars in 2016: 8-5, 7-2 in Pac-12; lost Holiday Bowl, 17-12, to Minnesota

Returning starters: 16 - 7 on offense, 9 on defense

Offensive players to watch: LT Andre Dillard, Jr. (started all 13 games at LT last year); QB Luke Falk, Sr. (443-of-633, 4,468 yards, 38 TD, 11 INT); WR Isaiah Johnson-Mack, So. (35 catches, 246 yards, 1 TD); RT Cole Madison, Sr. (All-Pac-12 honorable mention last year); WR Tavares Martin Jr., Jr. (64 catches, 728 yards, 7 TD); RB Jamal Morrow, Sr. (90 att., 575 yards, 5 TD; 48 catches, 488 yards, 5 TD); LG Cody O'Connell, Sr. (All-American last year); RB Gerard Wicks, Sr. (88 att., 475 yards, 11 TD; 29 catches, 184 yards, 1 TD); RB James Williams, So. (102 att., 584 yards, 6 TD; 48 catches, 342 yards, 1 TD).

Defensive players to watch: LB Isaac Dotson, Sr. (64 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 INT); DE Hercules Mata'afa, Jr. (47 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 5 sacks); CB Darrien Molton, Jr. (71 tackles, 6 PBU); DE Nnamdi Oguayo, So. (39 tackles, 4 sacks) ; LB Peyton Pelluer, Sr. (93 tackles, 7.5 TFL); FS Robert Taylor, Sr. (61 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries); SS Jalen Thompson, So. (51 tackles, 7 PBU).

Notable: WSU and Oregon are tied for the most returning starters (16) in the Pac-12. ... In his 15 seasons as a head coach, Leach has taken his teams to 13 bowl games. ... WSU is seeking a third consecutive bowl appearance for the first time since three bowls in a row from 2001-03. ... Falk needs 2,713 passing yards and 28 TDs to break Pac-12 career records in both categories. He's averaged 4,515 yards and 38 TDs the past two years. ... The Cougars open the season against Montana State of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). WSU has lost to FCS teams in the last two season openers. ... The Cougars have lost five consecutive season openers and have a 1-10 record in their last 11 openers. ... Last year, the Cougars allowed just 26.4 points per game, its best number since 2006.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.