Washington State wants bowl game ... really

PULLMAN, Wash. -- It's March and the madness is upon us with underdogs swaggering past more talented favorites with a self-regard that rejects those who would question their capabilities.

Which is why a Washington State football skeptic -- read: everybody, since the program has won a single Pac-10 game over the past two seasons -- might pause charitably this time of the year after listening to the Cougars talk about their belief that 2010 will become a transformative year of success.

"I think you're going to see a completely different team out there," defensive end Travis Long said. "Realistically, I think we can get to a bowl game. That's my goal. I think it's everyone's goal."

A bowl game? Really.

"We break on roses everyday because we want to get to that game," quarterback Jeff Tuel said. "We want to get to a bowl game. We know if we put it all together and do things right we can get there."

Tuel pauses. "We expect to win games."

Wait. Go back. Did he say "roses," as in "Rose Bowl?"

Hey, Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington fans: You might want to stop yucking it up. The Cougars have been to two Rose Bowl since the 1997 season. How many has your team gone to during that span?

That said, come on, now: The Cougars can't really expect to go to a bowl game after a 1-11 season in which they ranked last in the Pac-10 in every major statistical category.

Well, in 2000, the Cougars completed a 4-7 season with a 51-3 beatdown defeat at home against rival Washington. The Cougs had won just 10 games over the three seasons since going to the Rose Bowl.

Ah, but they won 10 each of the next three seasons, finishing each ranked in the nation's top 10.

So there's precedent for the Cougs overcoming doubts and legitimately pursuing roses.

"Everyone knows we're going to be better," coach Paul Wulff said. "There's no doubt."

Well, coach, there are plenty of doubts.

"The players are embarrassed and I think they've got a chip on their shoulder," Wulff said. "They're out to prove people wrong."

Long and Tuel are a good place to start. Both started as true freshmen and played significantly better than true freshmen should on a 1-11 team.

Long led the defense with 6.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks, which tied with three others for the team lead. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors.

Tuel saw his first career action in the season's fourth game at USC and went on to start five games before an injury to his kneecap ended his debut campaign. He completed 59 percent of his throws for 789 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions.

The enthusiasm around the program for Tuel borders on giddy, not only over his physical skills but also his moxie and leadership ability that suggest -- dare you think it Coug fans? -- Jason Gesser.

"His upside is huge," Wulff said.

By the way, Wulff, Long and Tuel all know that plenty of eyes are rolling. No player or coach says -- at least publicly -- that it expects to lose. When the Cougs talk about hard work and young talent about to break out, it doesn't sound much different than what they said last spring.

"[Fans] ask me, 'You guys going to do better next year?' I go, 'Yeah, we're going to do a lot better.' But they kind of don't think we can do it," Long said. "They get that air about them. They doubt us."

Still, there are legitimate reasons for optimism, and the Cougars don't even bring up having 19 returning starters.

Just how young was Washington State last year? Consider: In 2009 -- in large part due to epidemic injuries -- the Cougars needed 102 combined starts from guys who played the first football of their college careers. Fourteen freshmen -- five true and nine redshirt -- accounted for 60 of those starts, more than any other season over the past two decades. The previous high for the program over the past 20 years was 47 in 1999.

The expectation is those young players will be much better in 2010. And those returning from injury will offer talent upgrades. And that the incoming and redshirt freshman are Wulff's players who won't resist his plan and demands like veterans did the past two seasons.

At least, that's the plan.

Long is a good example to tout potential improvement. He played well last year as a 247-pound end who bench-pressed 285 pounds. Now he's 262 pounds, bench presses 325 pounds, squats 440 and power cleans over 300, each significant strength gains.

Wulff said that's typical of the offseason work.

Of course, few will buy it until they see it, and that's why many believe Wulff is on the hot seat. It doesn't help that the Pac-10 looks deep again in 2010, and that the nonconference schedule includes visits to SMU and Oklahoma State.

A final reason to stamp a "maybe" on the Cougs. It's not only new-found hope and confidence you can sniff out around the program. There's a little bit of anger and defiance.

Said Long of the redundant losing: "I'm really tired of it. I know the older guys are sick of it. They've been here three or four years and never had a winning season."