Wulff, Kooyman polite but tired of dissing

PASADENA -- Their smiles and demeanors were as bright as the sun beaming down on the masses gathered here. Though WSU head coach Paul Wulff and senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman were as polite and cordial as anyone participating in Thursday's Pac-10 Conference Media Day at the Rose Bowl, they carried chips on their shoulders as big as the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains glaring in the distance.

"The last two seasons have been really tough," said Kevin Kooyman, a 6-6, 259-pound fifth-year senior, who redshirted last season after straining a PCL in his left knee in practice leading up to the second game. Kooyman, who is fully recovered, is one of eight starters returning on the Cougars defense.

"You just kind of have to ignore it. We are going to shock some people this season. We don't really care about the rankings. It is more of a distraction. We don't care what the media says, no offense to you guys."

No offense to the Cougars either, but they were downright awful last season, going 0-9 in conference play and 1-11 overall. All of their losses were of the double-digit variety and their closest one was 27-14 setback to Arizona State. The rest were by at least 18 points.

Those numbers are the biggest reasons the Cougars are picked by Pac-10 beat writers to finish in the cellar. Washington State didn't even register half the votes of the team (Arizona State) picked above it. ASU and Wazzu were among the three conference schools, along with Cal, that didn't receive at least one first-place vote.

For the record, defending champ Oregon is a slight favorite over USC for conference supremacy, with Oregon State being tabbed at No. 3. Stanford is No. 4 and Arizona, Washington, Cal and UCLA follow.

That's all fine and dandy for now. Preseason predictions are just that and aren't even worth the paper they're printed on, Kooyman and Wulff believe. Neither of them sees the Pac-10 race playing out that way. And though neither is predicting a Washington State conference championship, neither believes the team will fare as bad as last year.

"We have no way to go but up," Kooyman said. "That's how we're looking at it. If we lose, everyone we'll say ‘oh we knew it.' So we have to win. And we expect to win. This season is going to be completely different (than the last two). There's a completely different vibe in Pullman and we're excited about it."

So is Wulff, who enters his third season at Washington State, with a 3-22 mark overall and 1-17 record in the Pac-10. Worst, the Cougars never led a contest all season during regulation. Their lone win, a 30-27 victory over SMU, came in overtime after the Cougars forced it with a touchdown at the end of regulation.

Still, Wulff believes Wazzu fans will see a "dramatic improvement" this season.

"I feel like we have the best team that we have ever had since I've been here," Wulff said. "We have played in this building on New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl twice in the last 12 years. Other than Oregon and USC, no other team has done that. We feel we are headed on the same path as those teams that made the Rose Bowl. We are going to take a big step."

Added Kooyman: "We are the hardest working group out there every Saturday. Hard work beats talent any day, so we are just ready and excited about this season."

Wulff, asked about new athletic director Bill Moos, said his new boss will elevate the program.

"We have hired, who I feel, is the best athletic director in the country in Bill Moos," Wulff said. "He has built football programs before and he's going to be able to bring us to a higher level. I am excited about the culmination."

Moos, who also was in Pasadena, told a Seattle radio station that Wulff has the profile that fits well at WSU. He also lauded Wulff's recruiting skills. "If he "continues to do the great job he's been doing in recruiting that will translate into victories."

The Cougars' 2010 recruiting class was rated No. 40 in the nation by Scout.com and the 2011 class, which so far consists of 12 verbals, is currently rated No. 36.

The Cougs start laying the foundation for their future on Sept. 4, when they visit Oklahoma State.

Forrest Lee is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif.

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