Of all the coaching changes in the Pac-12 this season, Arizona's switch from Mike Stoops to Rich Rodriguez may be the one that takes the most time to get off the ground. Arizona ran a spread last year--but it was overwhelmingly a passing offense. Nick Foles passed for over 4300 yards last season, but he was basically a statue, and the team as a whole rushed for barely over a thousand yards. Now, Arizona goes from that to the heavily run-based spread of Rich Rodriguez. But the changes don't end on offense, as the defense switches from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5, and is a unit that even Rich Rodriguez admits is perilously thin. There is reason for optimism long-term in Tucson, but it could be another ugly record for the Wildcat faithful in 2012.
Arizona has a ton of offensive turnover to go with their new system, and that starts at the quarterback position. Nick Foles was a very good college quarterback--but could not have succeeded as a Rich Rodriguez quarterback. In the RichRod system, the QB needs to be a consistent running threat--think Pat White or Denard Robinson. Foles definitely was not that. Senior Matt Scott, who will be the starter this season, really isn't that,either. However, he does have some mobility (309 rushing yards in nine games in '09), and is the closest thing Rodriguez is going to find. Rodriguez had also better hope Scott can stay healthy, as no other quarterback on the roster has any mobility whatsoever. This won't be Rodriguez' first year at Michigan bad, as Scott will at times give us glimpses, but we will not see a true RichRod offense at Arizona until 2013, when Rodriguez can bring in a quarterback more capable of running his system.
Running back was never a focal position at Arizona, and last years starter, Keola Antolin, was a power back who isn't really a fit for the new system. Ka'Deen Carey and Daniel Jenkins combined for about 600 yards on 120 carries last season, and should share time shouldering the load. Taimi Tutogi returns at fullback, but that position isn't exactly highlighted in the new offense, and there are even talks of him moving to the defensive line. This trio provides some talented pieces, but we don't know that any of them will be a star.
There is even more turnover at the receiver position, where four of the top five targets graduated last season. That said, the fact that Stoops worked through so many receivers gives me confidence that this group will be okay. Dan Buckner hauled in 42 balls and Austin Hill and Richard Morrison over 20 each. This won't be as good as last year's group that included Juron Criner and David Douglas, but its returns far more production than some groups who lost fewer numbers, and has some talent to work with.
The offensive line returns the entire two deep, though they will be asked to do different things than last season. They only allowed 23 sacks last season, which isn't bad considering Foles was at QB. This could be one of the better lines in the conference. Overall, the offense will go as far as Matt Scott can take it. The line should hold, and there is talent returning at receiver and running back. If Scott can be a consistent run threat--and stay healthy--this offense has a chance to be successful. If Scott gets hurt, it'll be Steven Threet as Michigan painful.
While there is optimism to be had on offense, defense is much more worrisome. The good news is that Jeff Casteel, Rodriguez' defensive coordinator at West Virginia, has joined him in Tucson, so he should be able to avoid the pitfalls Greg Robinson brought at Michigan. But there is little talent and no depth on this side of the ball, and they are going to have trouble stopping many teams in this conference.
There is no other way to describe Arizona's defensive line last year than awful. Not only couldn't they stop the run (167 yards/game against), but they couldn't generate a pass rush, either, and their ten sacks were the worst in the FBS. Switching from a four man to a three man front will help the depth, and despite losing two starters, return seven players with significant game experience. That said, Rodriguez is so nervous about the ability of this group to generate a pass rush that he's experimenting with tight ends and fullbacks on the defensive line. This group has to be improved almost by default, but I certainly don't expect them to be any good.
Arizona loses their top two linebackers, but his is still the most solid unit on the defense. Rob Hankins started several games a a true freshman last season, and Jake Fischer is a former starter, and a good one, who comes back after missing last season with a torn ACL. The Wildcats also return two other players with starting experience. However, the star of the group will be senior Brian Wagner, who took advantage of the graduate transfer rule to transfer from Akron and is eligible to play right way. Wagner will be a rock at MIKE for Arizona, and the two-time first team all-MAC performer had 147 tackles last season.
Defensive back is another big concern. UA returns two starters, and CB Shaquille Richardson is a star. However, Johnathan McKnight is returning from an ACL, and Arizona has very little depth at the position. That depth will be tested with the switch to the 3-3-5, especially with a weak pass rush giving opposing QBs plenty of time to throw. This defense was decimated by injuries last season. They gave up some big numbers to bad teams--37 to Oregon State, 48 to Colorado, 37 to Louisiana-Lafayette. They will need to both stay healthy and get considerably better defensive line play to be much better this year. Given that Rodriguez is already searching the scrap heap for pass rushers, the chances seem very unlikely.
Arizona opens with a tricky team in Toledo, and follows that up with a visit from Oklahoma State. They only have four road games, but its a tough road slate with games at Oregon, Stanford, Utah, and UCLA. They miss potential winnable matchups with Washington State and Cal from the North. Although they have eight home games, matchups against USC, Oklahoma State, and Washington are going to be tough. They'll beat South Carolina State, Colorado, and likely Toledo, but have to win three toss-up games against Oregon State, UCLA, and Arizona State, or notch a major upset, to be bowl eligible.
Given the difficulty of the schedule, as well as QB questions and general lack of depth, its going to be a tough year for Arizona. 6-6 woudl be the ceiling, but a lot of things have to go right for them to get there. As it is, 4-5 wins, and a fifth place finish in the Pac-12 South, seems to be the most likely scenario. That said, Arizona fans shouldn't be as concerned with wins this season, as much as consistent improvement in learning the new system and hoping that Rodriguez can land some new quarterbacks and give fans hope for 2013.