Adv23-24

Updated: August 21, 2003, 9:34 PM ET

PULLMAN, Wash. -- It's a good thing Washington State's new head football coach, Bill Doba, is well-traveled. He'll have his bags packed often during his first season in charge.

Washington State has a tough road schedule, with games at Notre Dame on Sept. 6, Colorado the following week, USC and Washington.

The season opener against Idaho next Saturday at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle starts the road swing, although the Cougars are considered the home team.

"The reason I got this job is that no one else wanted it with that (away) schedule," Doba joked. "I had no idea. I guess we'll play 'em one at a time."

More seriously, Doba said the team would return from Seattle quickly after the Idaho game to begin preparing for Notre Dame, then do the same for Colorado after meeting the Irish in West Bend, Ind.

"We're just trying to make it a business trip," he said. "Business as usual."

Doba was an assistant at Indiana, Purdue and The Citadel before coming to Pullman 14 years ago. Last season he was the defensive coordinator until he was elevated to head coach when Mike Price left for an ill-fated stint at Alabama.

Last season, the Cougars went 10-3 and won the Pacific-10 Conference championship before losing to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.

Doba co-coached the team at the Rose Bowl in January with Price, and concedes he is still learning the language of the offense. That means offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller will be called upon frequently.

Seven defensive starters and five on offense are among 49 returning letter-winners. But for the first time in four years, the Cougars are not led by quarterback Jason Gesser.

His understudy, Matt Kegel, is now the starter.

Kegel, a fifth year senior, is also the biggest offensive question: Can he continue to move the Cougars? He completed 87 of 174 passes for 1,035 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions last season.

His coaches say Kegel has the confidence it takes.

"He has really stepped up and made a conscious effort to become a leader," quarterbacks coach Timm Rosenbach said of Kegel, an offensive team captain. "He didn't force himself to do it. It came naturally."

Following Gesser could be daunting, but Kegel is keeping it all in perspective, Doba said. The last time Kegel played, replacing an injured Gesser, the Cougars blew a late lead and lost to Washington in the Apple Cup in triple overtime.

"We tell him to just play it one play at a time. It's not like this is the end of world," Doba said. "First, he's got to forget the Apple Cup. He's got to look at the positive things he's done in the past years. He helped us beat Southern Cal a few years ago."

WSU also will have to replace standout wide receivers Mike Bush and Jerome Riley.

Devard Darling returns at wide receiver, but the Cougars are flush at tight end and likely will incorporate more short passes into their offense.

"This year, for a change, we have tight ends who aren't hurt," Doba said.

Troy Bienneman leads a group of five ends who are at least 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds.

Darling, who caught 54 passes for 800 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, highlights a talented pool of wide receivers. Sammy Moore, Trandon Harvey and Scott Lunde all have game experience.

"The receiving corps is actually kind of deep," Doba said.

Defensively, the Cougars need to replace first-round draft pick Marcus Trufant at cornerback and Outland Trophy winner Rien Long on the defensive line, but Doba is optimistic.

"Defensively, we may be a little stronger than last year," Doba said. "We lost two marquee players in Rien Long and Marcus Trufant, but we have a group who have really stepped up. We have seven decent defensive linemen and there are a few young kids that could help."

The offensive line could also be a strength, Doba said.

Seniors Josh Parrish and Billy Knotts and All-Pac-10 lineman Calvin Armstong, a junior, return with junior Sam Lightbody, who had three starts last season.

WSU has gone 20-5 the last two years including 13-3 in the conference.

Doba said he wasn't concerned about preseason predictions that have the Cougars finishing seventh in the Pac-10.

"Last time we were picked 7th we went to the Rose Bowl," he said. "I don't think we're going to sneak up on anybody."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index