- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Washington State quarterback Luke Falk could blossom into a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate this season.

Coach Mike Leach thinks Falk should have won the award last year, when he threw for 4,566 yards and 38 touchdowns in leading the surprising Cougars to a 9-4 finish.

“There was a time when the Heisman went to the guy who had the biggest impact and effect on their team, and if that was the case, he probably would have won it last year or should have,” Leach said.

Despite their dramatic improvement last year, the Cougars are projected to finish just fourth in the Pac-12’s northern division, a prediction that is something of a surprise as Washington State returns most of last year’s key performers.

A major returnee to Pullman is receiver Gabe Marks, who is back for his senior year after catching 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

Marks believes Falk is more than just Heisman material.

“I call him the ‘Messiah of the Palouse,’ and also the CEO of Washington State football, because he runs the show,” Marks said.

“Without a quarterback that people follow, and that’s a leader, you can’t win,” Marks said.

Falk, a junior, was an All-Pac-12 first-team selection last season after leading the country in passing at 380.5 yards per game. He completed 69.4 percent of his passes in Leach’s Air Raid offense as the Cougars won six more games than the season before.

“I guess one of his best qualities is he doesn’t have a glaring weakness,” Leach said. “But, like anybody, he needs to improve.”

Falk and Marks have caught the eye of some prominent postseason awards committees. Marks is on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation’s best receiver, and Falk is on the watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award, given annually to the best quarterback in college football.

BIG SEASON: After winning just three games the year before, a performance that had fans grumbling about the Leach regime, Washington State roared to a 9-4 record, including a Sun Bowl victory over Miami. They went 6-3 in the Pac-12, including wins over Oregon and UCLA.

SEASON OPENER: The Cougars host Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference on Sept. 3. The Eagles are no pushover, playing tough against Pac-12 teams in numerous games in recent years. Last year, Washington State opened the season with a shocking loss to FCS Portland State, a defeat that ultimately cost them a 10-win season.

KEY GAMES: Washington State and Boise State square off on Sept. 10 in Boise in an intriguing non-conference matchup. The two programs have not played since 2001, and Washington State has won all four games in the series. But Boise State has become a national power since they last played.

QUARTERBACK DEPTH: The Cougars have a legitimate star in Falk at quarterback, but not much behind him. Backup Peyton Bender, who played some last year when Falk was injured, transferred out of the program. That leaves untested Tyler Hilinski if Falk is injured. The Cougars also brought in a junior-college transfer, Anthony Gordon, in May.

DEFENSIVE STRENGTH: A big reason for the Cougars’ improvement last year was the defense. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch oversaw a unit that went from allowing 38.6 points per game to just 27.7 points last year. Grinch was rewarded with a three-year contract extension after the season.

PREDICTION: The Cougars are picked by media to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North, behind Stanford, Washington and Oregon. Marks is not impressed by the athletic pedigree of the media panel. “I bet over three-quarters of the people that vote on this thing never even played football,” Marks said.

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