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Originally published July 26, 2011 at 6:30 PM | Page modified July 27, 2011 at 11:43 AM

Cougars coach Paul Wulff says team has gained experience, can be a contender

Washington State is 5-32 in coach Paul Wulff's first three years in Pullman.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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LOS ANGELES — Over a sandwich beneath a warm Southern California sun, Paul Wulff leaned over and previewed the message he will deliver to his Washington State football team when it meets soon for his fourth season at WSU. It wasn't necessarily what you'd expect from a coach who is 5-32 in three seasons and on a broiling hot seat.

"We're going to go compete for a championship," he said at Pac-12 media day. "We've got enough experience. We want to win our division title.

"The only way we can do that is take care of business day to day. We've done all the right things to give ourselves every opportunity to compete and win any game."

Most WSU fans would be ecstatic if the Cougars could win six games and get to a bowl game for the first time since 2003.

The WSU roster is reasonably intact aside from a couple of key academic question marks on the defensive line. Brandon Rankin and Toni Pole, both being counted on heavily, still have work to make up, although Wulff feels relatively positive about their chances for being eligible.

Several freshmen haven't yet attained eligibility, including Curtis High's Rahmel Dockery, a receiver/return specialist. Others in question are linemen Alex Mitchell of Portland, Wendell Taiese of Oakland, Floridian Demetrius Cherry and Brock Lutes of Newberg, Ore. Without any attrition, WSU would have 27 initial scholarships, two over the limit, and Wulff is expecting a couple not to make it.

Meanwhile, JC defensive lineman Niko Aumua didn't make it in, and linebacker Louis Bland, who has battled off-field issues and a problem knee, will have another surgery on it and will miss his second straight season.

Around the conference:

ARIZONA STATE: Former Seahawks and WSU coach Dennis Erickson is on something of a hot seat entering year four at Arizona State, where he's 25-24, and just 15-21 since a 10-3 record in his first year in 2007. But Erickson was in a good mood during his time on the podium, and said his seemingly tenuous status isn't a concern.

"I have high expectations of our football team this year," he said. "We all do. And that's all I can worry about. I can't worry about what you think or what somebody else thinks."

ARIZONA: Coach Mike Stoops cleared up the situation surrounding Juron Criner, the leading returning receiver in the conference with 82 receptions a year ago. There was speculation this summer that Criner might not play this year due to unspecified personal issues. But Stoops said Tuesday that Criner will play. "Juron's had some personal and family issues with his mother that he had to attend to, and spent some time with his mother, and I think that was a big part of it," he said. "I think Juron has come back and worked really hard. I think he feels better about his mother, and that is a big part of who he is and I think he feels a lot better about her condition."

CALIFORNIA: Coach Jeff Tedford said he is not worried about the fact the school has also been connected to Willie Lyles, whose recruiting service is at the center of an NCAA investigation at Oregon. The NCAA is reportedly investigating whether Lyles helped direct players to Oregon, which paid him $25,000. Cal reportedly paid Lyles $5,000 for videos and recruiting lists in 2009. "We have the videos, we have the prospect list, so I have absolutely no concern about it," Tedford said.

COLORADO: The first task for new coach Jon Embree of new Pac-12 member Colorado is to win a road game. Colorado has lost 18 straight dating to 2007. The Buffs open this season at Hawaii. "I believe there is no one on our team that's played in a road win," Embree said. "I'm taking it head on. Good teams win on the road. Obviously we haven't been a good team or I wouldn't be here."

OREGON: As many anticipated, Oregon coach Chip Kelly didn't directly answer questions about the NCAA investigation, saying he couldn't until it was completed. However, he said he doesn't think the controversy has caused any distraction to his team, or hurt in recruiting, citing the team's recent successes on the field. "I haven't had to address it with recruits right now," he said. "It's a bright future for us."

OREGON STATE: Maybe the biggest question for OSU is the health of receiver James Rodgers, who suffered a knee injury last year against Arizona that has required two surgeries. OSU coach Mike Riley said it was still uncertain when Rodgers might return, saying he has another doctor's appointment before camp starts. "He has always been deemed ahead of schedule," Riley said. "You can't count him out, but I'm not going to force him in at this time."

STANFORD: Quarterback Andrew Luck accompanied new coach David Shaw to media day, then said it will be his last. He has two years of eligibility left, and might have been the top pick in the 2011 draft had he come out, but speculation says he will turn pro in 2012. "I'm doing this as my last college season and approaching it like such," Luck said.

UCLA: The Bruins have an uncertain quarterback situation entering camp, one that grew even shakier with the news Tuesday that heralded true freshman Brett Hundley will have knee surgery Wednesday to repair a meniscus injury suffered recently playing basketball. Coach Rick Neuheisel said Hundley, who graduated high school early to participate in spring ball, could be back by the second half of camp. Neuheisel said junior Kevin Prince, who struggled last year with a knee injury, will be the starter entering camp.

USC: USC was picked to win the South Division. But if the Trojans fulfill that prediction, they won't be able to play in the first Pac-12 title game after the NCAA recently denied USC's appeal of sanctions levied a year ago. That means USC is ineligible for postseason play for the second straight year.

"As far as the appeals process, we're glad it's over," said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "We're disappointed in the decision, but it is what it is. We worry about what we can control. We're moving forward, and at least we know what it is now so it's not hanging over our heads. We don't have to deal with what may happen."

UTAH: The Utes are the other conference newcomer, and their status as a contender in the South might rest on the shoulder of junior QB Jordan Wynn, who is 11-4 as a starter. He missed the spring after having shoulder surgery, but coach Kyle Whittingham pronounced him healthy Tuesday.

"Absolutely, the shoulder is sound," Whittingham said. "He's 100 percent from a medical standpoint. There are no limitations in that regard."

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