Due to a malfunctioning computer, we're changing the order of these previews. ASU will run tomorrow.
The Arizona Wildcats are one of the toughest teams to figure out going into this season. While the Pac-10 media pegged them for 8th in the conference, other sources (most notably Phil Steele) have them in the upper half of the conference.
And this disagreement is all due to one man: Mike Stoops. Life under Stoops in Tucson has been mind-numbingly inconsistent. After a couple years of growing pains in which Stoops had to deal with the hangover from the John Mackovic era, Stoops teams have shown improvement, at least on a play-to-play level. When Matt Hinton looked at the Wildcats earlier this offseason, he has noted that in almost every year under Stoops, the team he improved in yards per play differential, yards per game differential, and overall points per game differential. And in many cases, these statistics show just how much a team is improving (or regressing) better than win-loss.
But despite that improvement, Arizona was consistently hit with head scratching losses. While the Wildcats have played USC tougher than almost any team in the conference, they have lost to New Mexico and Stanford two years in a row. Every major milestone Stoops reaches is countered with defeat.
This will be a very important year for the Wildcats. They have a talented and marginally experienced defense, but lose a lot on the offensive side of the ball. While Stoops has earned a season with his young team, if Arizona significantly regresses this year, in 2010 they will be calling for his head again.
This year, Oregon gets Arizona at the end of the season, and must go to Tucson, where things have not gone so well over the past few season (for either Oregon team). While Oregon should be a superior team, Arizona has always played well at home, especially against the upper half of the Pac-10, and no matter Arizona's standing at the time, the Ducks will be in for a tough game.
Oregon Offense vs. Arizona Defense:
The Arizona defense starts up front with the defensive line, which returns their entire two-deep. However, this was a unit that allowed opponents to average over 4 yards per rush, and averaged less than 2 sacks per game. The line will be backed up by linebackers who will be good, but not outstanding. While this unit is bound to improve in rush defense, this will likely be marginal at best.
The strength of the Arizona D will be their secondary. They return one of the top CBs in the conference in Devin Ross. While they must replace the other cornerback, they return talented and experienced safeties in Robert Golden and Cam Nelson. I expect this unit to continue their production from last season, when they were a top 25 passing defense that intercepted 16 balls and held opponents to a passer rating of 106.70.
However, I don't think that they will be able to stop an Oregon offense that will hopefully be very experienced and running like a well-oiled machine by the 11th game of the season. When the Oregon offense was "on" over the last two years, the Arizona defense had no chance to stop it. Oregon did what it wanted when it wanted. Unfortunately, injuries, mistakes, and mental implosions hurt the Ducks, but on this side of the ball, Oregon will have control. If they don't fall apart, they should score 40+ points.
Oregon Defense vs. Arizona Offense:
While the Arizona Offense will lose a decent amount of production due to offensive line losses and the loss of Willie Tuitama, they return the best tight end in the nation in Rob Gronkowski. I'm sure most of you remember last season, where Oregon was simply unable to guard him. He's big, fast, and catches everything. While he has been out with a strained back, he will end up being the go-to receiver for new QB Matt Scott (who appears to have won the QB competition with Nick Foles). They also have a number of talented receivers, led by Delashaun Dean, who has had two solid seasons so far.
However, while I think that Arizona passing game will not see a lot of regression due to the amount of playmakers, the offense as a whole hinges on the success of the running game. Last season was so successful for Arizona because they averaged over 158 ypg rushing, which led to their best offense in years. Arizona brought in Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech before the 2007 season, and while that led to instant improvement accross the board, the true success was seen when the passing game was complemented by a strong running game.
While the Wildcats return RB Nic Grigsby, who was great last season, they lose a large amount on the offensive line. For Arizona to succeed, especially against the Ducks, Arizona must run the ball effectively. One of the reasons they were so strong last year against Oregon is that they ran for 199 yards on the ground, the second most Oregon gave up all year. While Arizona will likely still be good on the ground, a good defense should be able to make them one dimensional, and with a new QB, that will not lead to long term success for the offense.
I don't believe Arizona will regress to 8th in the Pac-10 this year, and they have the talent to surprise a few teams. However, they will likely be marked by maddening inconsistency, and they will lose some games that were winnable.
Oregon has a lot of advantages in this game. They have an offense that Arizona will have a lot of difficultly stopping. They will likely be able to make Arizona rely on the pass, while getting pressure on a young QB. I think that Arizona will be able to keep it close for a while, but Oregon will run away with the game in the 4th quarter, as Oregon is a deeper, more talented team, and will force Arizona to rely on an inexperienced passing game.