The start of football season is right around the corner. It’s so close I can practically taste the tailgate BBQ and beer on tap. I can feel the warm sun and see the parking lots overflowing with masses of green and yellow. Behind it all is our cathedral, Autzen Stadium, ready to awaken from its off-season slumber.
In preparation of this glorious time of the year, I will be releasing previews of each team in the Pac-12. So what makes these previews different than the countless others released every summer? Well, for one, I’m not a professional writer, so I’ll have to settle for the prestigious title of journalist. The main difference here is that I will not be simply writing about the X’s and O’s of each team. Instead, I am giving you a preview of the season through the eyes of each team’s fan base. My goal is to give everyone a glimpse of what everyone else is experiencing. Are they confident, concerned or somewhere in between? Let’s find out.
- All-Time Record: 601-452-33 (.569%)
- National Championships: 0
- Conference Championships: 6
- Bowl Games: 20
- Bowl Record: 9-10-1 (.457%)
- Consensus All-Americans: 16
- Heismans: 0
- NFL Draft Picks: 180
- 1st Round Draft Picks: 10
- Weeks in AP Poll: 168
- Weeks at #1: 0
- All-Time Record: 16-25
- Longest Win Streak: 4 Games (1984-1988)
- Longest Losing Streak: 7 games (1999-2005
- Largest Margin of Victory: 38-3 (1998)
- Largest Margin of Defeat: 49-0 (2012)
- Last Meeting: 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game (L 14-51)
Arizona enters 2017 on the heels of an abysmal 2016 campaign. The Wildcats finished with a 3-9 record (1-8 in conference), good for last place in the South Division. The last time Arizona finished with three wins occurred in 2004 and 2005 in Mike Stoops’ first two years at the helm. From there, the program steadily rose, but struggled to break through and maintain success. In Stoops’ eight seasons, the Wildcats finished at or above .500 just four times. After finishing 4-8 in 2011, Stoops was let go and Rich Rodriguez was brought in to right the ship. The next two seasons Rodriguez went 8-5 and peaked at 10-4 in 2014. Since then Arizona has been trending down and Rich Rodriguez finds himself on the hot seat with a team that has more questions than answers.
What win total would constitute a successful season? What bowl game?
To be honest, anything more than six or seven wins would probably be considered a godsend in these parts, given how terribly Arizona's played on both sides of the ball over the last 18 months or so. A all-expenses-paid trip to Albuquerque has probably never looked so good to a group of teenagers...
What win total would constitute a failed season? What bowl game?
You'd have to think that a non-winning season would probably constitute both a failed season, and likely the end of the RichRod era here in Tucson. New Athletic Director Dave Heeke has made it abundantly clear to Rodriguez and company that he expects immediate results, both on and off the field, so another losing season would probably be Rich's last in the Old Pueblo.
What are you most optimistic about this coming season?
It's hard for those of us who have been around this program for a while to dig too hard for positives on the gridiron, accepting the hopeless cliche of asking when basketball season starts, usually around the first weekend of October. This year, the tide looks rather bleak, but there are a few positives on both sides of the ball that merit watching this fall. I, for one, look forward to seeing how the quarterback battle of junior Brandon Dawkins — who showed glimpses of glory during his time under center last year — and do-it-all Khalil Tate shakes out. There's also a new Tate in town, that being former MLB Draft pick Donavan Tate, who enters the year as a grisly 25-year-old with a cannon for an arm, though he's older than I am (which is rather hard to believe). Dawkins looked the part during the latter half of the year, with 271 rushing yards and four total touchdowns against Oregon State and the school in Tempe that shall go unnamed in this piece, so he should be the odds-on favorite to start against Northern Arizona University in the Cats' opener on Sept. 2. That battle royale between two of the more hyped-up Rodriguez recruits should provide the attention this program so terribly needs right now.
What are you most apprehensive about this season?
Is there an all of the above option here by chance? I kid, but really, this season is — and pardon me for using a tired cliche — a do-or-die year for Rodriguez and his coaching staff. They have a decent amount of talent on both sides of the ball, with Dawkins and injury-prone back Nick Wilson returning on offense, as well as last year's leading receiver Shun Brown, who hauled in 29 catches for 521 yards and three scores last year — so their offense should be somewhat decent. The issue, as is usually the case with Rodriguez's teams here in Tucson, is trying to predict how things will shake out on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats are still licking their wounds from an abysmal defensive performance last fall, when they allowed a whopping 38.3 points per game — ranking 118th out of 128 FBS programs. It's fair to say that Wildcats fans in general will hold their collective breath from the opening kick against the Lumberjacks until either the final whistle sounds in December, or until the team clinches another losing season.
What do you expect to be the toughest game?
It's tough to single out a game in particular, given how much of a gauntlet the Pac-12 regular season is. If I was to choose one in particular, it would probably be the team's Pac-12 opener, at home against Utah on Sept. 22. That game seems to hold an extra dose of significance, as it could determine whether Rodriguez is given the green light for next year. It isn't tough to see Arizona being 3-0 by that point in the year, given their cupcake non-conference schedule against NAU, a Houston team that should regress heavily from last year and a road game against former Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association and WAC foe UTEP — who combined to go 18-18 a year ago (with Houston earning nine of those Ws). The Utah game could be the turning point for the Cats, as it'll be the opening game of a six game gauntlet against teams like CU, UCLA, Cal, Wazzu and Oregon State, who are all projected to be heavy favorites against Arizona — at least according to ESPN's Football Power Index. It's fair to say that the Cats could leave that stretch 3-6, should they fall at home to the Utes, so that game is definitely one to keep an eye on for sure.
What could be a potential trap game?
It's hard to say any matchup is a "trap game" when you're a meddling program like Arizona. Other than the team's shocking run to the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, there really hasn't been enough continued excellence since the Tomey days of the 90s (which gave our site its name), so this year's team can't really look down its nose at anyone in particular. That being said, the best option for a potential disaster would have to be the team's opening road game in El Paso on a Friday night in mid-September. The Miners are coming off a particularly ugly 2016 season, losing all of their games by double-digit margins, including a 52-point beatdown by the Golden Knights of Army, but feature an experienced backfield led by junior gunslinger Ryan Metz, who threw for 1,375 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, including a solid closing performance against North Texas in the season's final game, throwing for 171 yards and two TDs, while wracking up a career-best 43 yards on the ground as well. I'm not saying the Miners will beat the Wildcats, but they really are the only "underdog" with a realistic shot at beating Arizona this fall.
Are there any injury or depth concerns heading into the season?
Boy howdy, they sure do. Injuries have really been the four-letter word de jour in these parts over the past three years, between Scooby Wright, Anu Solomon and so many of their defensive players. This year's team is no different, with uber talented and oft-injured back Nick Wilson leading the charge. Wilson in particular seems to be the face of the injury epidemic in these parts, having only played in 14 games over the past two seasons. Wilson has been electric when he's been healthy, rushing for 1,375 yards as a true freshman three years ago, but has been decimated by an eye-popping number of ankle and assorted other leg injuries ever since. Fans here will keep their collective fingers crossed that Wilson can keep his body in one piece this fall, as the senior gives it one last collegiate hurrah before leaving the sun-parched Sonoran desert for good.
Who do you think will win each division?
That's the million dollar question. Let's start with your neck of the woods, as I (and most people that are smarter than me) think the Pac-12 North is by far the stronger division of the two. I'm going to go with my gut and say that Washington repeats as Northern champs, even after losing five players in this year's NFL Draft (the most they've had since 2001, I read). I expect Jake Browning to continue his Herculean leap up the Heisman standings this fall, even with superstar John Ross departing University Place. The bottom line is that Chris Petersen has a well-oiled machine rolling up there in the Northwest, not unlike the machinery that made Oregon a tour de force not long ago, which makes them the go-to pick for the North. In the south, my decision is much easier honestly, as the USC Trojans should walk away with the division, given their plethora of big-named talent returning from last year's Rose Bowl championship team. I expect the Trojans to finish first down here, with Utah, UCLA, Colorado, Arizona and ASU rounding out the bottom five.
Who will come in last in each division?
Honestly, picking the team to finish dead last this year is significantly tougher than who will finish first. I think that Cal is pretty much destined to finish dead last up north, given the turmoil surrounding Sonny Dykes' last-minute departure and the general lack of talent on both sides of the ball in Berkeley right now. I am a firm believer in what Gary Anderson is doing in Corvallis, and think the Beavers will have the biggest improvement compared to last year in the conference, so Cal's really the odd-man-out up north. Down south, it's going to likely come down to whoever loses this year's Territorial Cup game between ASU and Arizona, given the fact that both will be hard-pressed to knock off anyone else in the conference (besides themselves, of course). I can't see either of them doing well enough to supplant UCLA for fourth place, honestly.
How do you think your in-state rival will finish?
As stated above, ASU will be hard-pressed to finish fourth in the south, given the lack of continuity and talent in Tempe. It seems that both Rodriguez and Todd Graham are tragic heroes whose fate has already been cast, given their downward slide over the past three seasons. Honestly, I would be far from surprised if both weren't out of work by the time their teams face off at (newly-renovated) Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 25.
A huge thank you to Christopher Boan and Ryan Kelapire from Desert Swarm for taking the time to answer my questions and give input on Arizona’s upcoming season.