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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 60: Arizona

Arizona has September and October figured out. The Wildcats are 17-6 over the season’s first two months over the last three years, rising as high as 15th nationally during last year’s 7-1 start. It’s the last month-plus of the year that has given Mike Stoops and Arizona trouble since he first rejuvenated this program three seasons ago, particularly last fall: the Wildcats dropped five straight to end the year, coloring what was due to be a banner season into one defined by late-season failures. What happens to Arizona down the stretch? Answer that question – and believe me, Stoops is investigating – and you might solve the ailment that has prevented this program from joining the premier slice of the Pac-12.

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Tucson, Ariz.

Nickname
Wildcats

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 46

2010 record
(7-6, 4-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 45

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Northern Arizona
  • Sept. 9
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Sept. 17
    Stanford
  • Sept. 24
    Oregon
  • Oct. 1
    at U.S.C.
  • Oct. 8
    at Oregon St.
  • Oct. 20
    U.C.L.A.
  • Oct. 29
    at Washington
  • Nov. 5
    Utah
  • Nov. 12
    at Colorado
  • Nov. 19
    at Arizona St.
  • Nov. 26
    La.-Lafayette

Last year’s prediction

This program has turned a corner, and doesn’t deserve to have its bowl chances even questioned. However, I don’t think the Wildcats have what it takes to play with Oregon or U.S.C. — I’m still including the Trojans in the conversation — and even lags behind Oregon State, whose final record, due to a tough non-conference slate, won’t reflect how good it can be. I’ll hedge my bets by saying Arizona is certainly capable of finishing as high as third, should the defense round into form. With their questions, however, this is a logical spot.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The Rose Bowl was still very much in the cards heading into October. The Wildcats started 7-1, losing by only two points to Oregon State on Oct. 9 and winning four of their first five in Pac-10 play. Then the bottom dropped out: five straight losses, two close, three by larger margins, and the Wildcats entered the winter with far more questions than answers. The biggest questions revolved around a defense that fell apart starting in November, though part of this decline is certainly traced back to the top-notch teams – Stanford, Oregon, Oklahoma State – that awaited down the stretch. The Cardinal and Ducks made a lot of teams look bad, remember. But the performance of the defense, which played a large part in Arizona’s early success, was a troublesome sticking-point over the 0-5 finish. The offense was fairly consistent despite a pair of new coordinators: at least 370 yards in 10 of 13 games, never less than 311, at least 404 yards seven times.

High point In terms of prestige, it was a 34-27 home win over then-No. 9 Iowa on Sept. 18. In terms of most impressive, I’d go with a 44-14 win over Washington five weeks later. Or was it a 41-2 road win at Toledo on the first Friday of September? Well, the Huskies were better than the Rockets, but it was a dominating performance from Arizona. Also important about that win in Toledo was that it erased the foul taste of 2009’s Holiday Bowl loss to Nebraska, perhaps setting a nice tone for that 7-1 start.

Low point You could just say the 0-5 finish, but let’s be a bit more specific. And we can get very, very specific: I’d say the low point of the year came with 27 seconds left in regulation against Arizona State, when the Sun Devils blocked the would-be go-ahead extra point to force overtime — when they did it again, blocking a second extra point to steal a 30-29 win. That’s not a loss the Arizona fan base will soon forget.

Tidbit The Wildcats have scored at least 336 points in each of the last four years. That’s the best offensive stretch in program history, exceeding the four straight years of at least 310 points from 1996-99. The previous streak, under Dick Tomey, saw the Wildcats score a combined total of 1,405 points, or 29.3 points per game. Arizona has scored 1,535 points since 2007, or 30.1 points per game. So it’s close, but the current Wildcats hold the edge.

Tidbit (turnovers edition) The Wildcats held high-powered Oklahoma State to a season-low 312 yards of offense, a season-low 240 yards passing, a season-low 5.9 yards per attempt and controlled the clock for nearly 38 minutes yet still lost, 36-10, in the Alamo Bowl. How? Four turnovers, that’s how. Arizona was minus-four in turnover margin for the first time since Sept. 13, 2008, when it turned the ball over five times in a loss to New Mexico.

Former players in the N.F.L.

19 RB Mike Bell (Cleveland), LB Lance Briggs (Chicago), OT Eben Britton (Jacksonville), CB Antoine Cason (San Diego), DE Lionel Dotson (Miami), DE Ricky Elmore (Green Bay), K Nick Folk (New York Jets), TE Rob Gronkowski (New England), FB Chris Gronkowski (Dallas), RB Chris Henry (Seattle), RB Chris Jennings (New York Jets), S Michael Johnson (New York Giants), FB Spencer Larsen (Denver), TE Brandon Manumaleuna (Chicago), DT Earl Mitchell (Houston), CB Nate Ness (Miami), LB Brooks Reed (Houston), DE D’Aundre Reed (Minnesota), WR Mike Thomas (Jacksonville).

Arbitrary top five list

N.B.A. players who attended high school in Arizona
1. PG Fat Lever (1983-94).
2. SF Sean Elliott (1989-2001).
3. PG Mike Bibby (1999-present).
4. SF Richard Jefferson (2002-present).
5. PF Channing Frye (2006-present).

Coaching

Mike Stoops (Iowa ’86), 40-45 after seven seasons in Tucson. His Wildcats have won at least seven games in each of the last three seasons, with 15 of those victories coming in Pac-10 play. Last fall marked another step forward of sorts for Arizona, which again started with a bang but must learn to keep up that same pace through the end of the season. One cannot overstate how big the 2008 season was for Stoops and the Arizona program. After being unable to get over the hump in his first four seasons, Stoops led the Wildcats to an eight-win finish, returning the program to bowl play for the first time in a decade. It took Stoops some time to get Arizona to this point. His teams went a combined 6-16 in 2004 and 2005, his first two seasons in charge, before coming very close to bowl play in both 2006 (6-6) and 2007 (5-7). After taking a slight step back in 2007, Stoops entered 2008 on the hot seat. After leading Arizona to 23 wins over the past three years — a program high since winning 24 games from 1997-99  – he has the program heading in the right direction. This is where the university pictured itself being when it hired Stoops away from Oklahoma late in 2003. He had played an important part in rebuilding that historic program, as the Sooners went 55-11 In his five seasons in Norman, time spent as the associate head coach and defensive coordinator. In the five years prior, the Sooners had gone 23-33-1 and through three coaches: Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake. Overall, through three stops as an assistant — Iowa and Kansas State before Oklahoma — Stoops compiled a record of 168-48-2 with 15 bowl appearances and the one national title. He’s come a long way since 2007, when Stoops found himself firmly upon the hot seat.

Players to watch

There’s talent, depth and experience at quarterback, where each of Arizona’s top three at the position are entering their senior season. Stanford has a better starter, as does U.S.C., perhaps, but no other Pac-12 team can quite match the combination of Nick Foles and Matt Scott — one as good a passer as Arizona has ever had, the latter a talented dual-threat option with solid starting experience. Just how good is Foles? No one tops Andrew Luck, but Foles is right alongside Matt Barkley as the Pac-12’s second-best quarterback: he showed this a year ago, when he threw for 3,191 yards and 20 scores despite missing two starts. Scott stepped in admirably, leading the Wildcats to wins over U.C.L.A. and Washington.

Scott’s always going to be there, and it must feel great to have such an experienced, complimentary option as your second quarterback. He didn’t play much outside those two starts — and much of the game Foles left due to injury — though maybe he should be used more; he can be a versatile weapon in certain packages. But this is Foles team, from top to bottom, and he’s the engine which drives this offense. He’s deserving of more national attention than he’s received. Enjoy this enviable quarterback situation while you can, Arizona. Next year, it’s back to the drawing board.

Keola Antonin (668 yards, 7 scores) will take over as the feature back after sharing those duties with Nic Grigsby over the last two years. Antonin was the more productive of the pair, leading Arizona in rushing in each of the last two years, so it stands to a reason that he could be a 1,000-yard back with the added touches. But there’s dangerously little depth behind the senior now that the Wildcats may be without Greg Nwoko (270 yards) for the season thanks to a knee injury. His setback spells more carries for an unproven back like sophomore Daniel Jenkins, or perhaps even incoming freshman Ka’Deem Carey.

Not being privy to the circumstances behind the situation, it’s entirely inappropriate for me to make any comment on Juron Criner’s status beyond the following: if it’s a serious issues, whether physical or emotional, we should keep him in our thoughts. If it’s not, as we all hope — especially Arizona and those close to the all-American caliber receiver — then perhaps Criner won’t miss the coming season, as some have conjectured. As of today, I think we have to go forward with the thought that he may not be ready for the start of the season, if not the entire year altogether. Given that thought, it’s vital that Foles and Arizona find a new leading target.

Senior David Douglas (52 catches for 515 yards) brings the next-most experience to the table, but he seems better suited to be a second option than a deep, game-breaking threat. If any one receiver is going to hold the role Criner filled so superbly over the last two years, I’d say it would be former Texas transfer Dan Buckner, who really looks the part. He made 45 catches in 2009 with the Longhorns before moving to Tucson.

Senior David Roberts (44 for 487) is also in the mix, as is sophomore Richard Morrison — he had a nice Alamo Bowl — and redshirt freshmen Austin Hill, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton. In terms of a big-bodied intermediate target, Foles developed a nice rapport last fall with 6’4 junior Terrance Miller, who ended the year with 29 grabs for 345 yards. With Criner, this was one of the nation’s best receiver corps. Without him — and again, we don’t really know what the story is as of yet — it’s a deep, talented group that lacks a difference-maker. Maybe Buckner will be that guy.

The A.C.L. bug hit the offense, costing Arizona its second running back, but it opened wide and took a nice big chunk out of the backside of this defense. Already without five of last season’s starters due to graduation, the Wildcats have lost three key figures to A.C.L. tears since the end of last season: free safety Adam Hall (54 tackles, 2 interceptions in 2010), linebacker Jake Fischer (58 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and defensive tackle Willie Mobley. That each of these knee injuries took place in a practice situation only makes them more difficult to swallow.

Onwards and upwards, Arizona, especially along the defensive line. Losing Mobley robs the Wildcats of one sizable member of the tackle rotation, but Arizona does return a pair of capable starters in Justin Washington (46 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 6 sacks) and Sione Tuihalamaka (23 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Washington is more than just capable, actually, but I wonder if he’ll make a similar impact in 2011 without ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore drawing so much attention. The shoes that pair leaves behind are mighty big indeed — 23 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks combined — and Arizona doesn’t have any proven commodities coming up the pipeline.

To me, Arizona needs converted tackle Dominique Austin to have a big year. Scratch that: Austin, who’s gone in and out of the line rotation, needs to have merely a strong year — he doesn’t need to make 10 sacks, but he needs to be consistent. That’s because as unproven as Austin might be, he’s a battle-tested veteran compared to converted linebacker C.J. Parish and former Houston transfer Mohamad Usman, the projected starters as of today. Parish has potential but needs to remain healthy.

The situation isn’t all that much better at linebacker. There’s Fischer, who hurts worst of all, but Arizona also had a pair of youngsters leave the team and a third suspended for academic issues. It’s clear that the Wildcats need help; it’s also clear that this team will rely even more heavily on returning starters Derek Earls (44 tackles, 8.5 for loss) and all-conference pick Paul Vassallo (team-best 102 tackles, 2 sacks). Arizona made a late addition to its recruiting class in JUCO transfer in David Lopez, who will definitely play, and will need to find production from senior Bilal Muhammed, a former walk-on, and a redshirt freshman like Kyle Benson.

There’s enough talent in the secondary for Arizona to perhaps play five defensive backs more often than not. Unfortunately, a good portion of this talent is quite young. There’s also the loss of Hall to consider, as that might push redshirt freshman Josh Robbins into a starting role before he’s ready. Would Arizona consider moving senior Robert Golden (60 tackles) back to safety from cornerback? He started at strong safety in 2009 before changing positions last fall, a move he handled fairly well.

I think Arizona could make that move. It would mean promoting sophomore Shaquille Richardson into a full-time starting role, but Richardson seems like a guy who’s going to take over sooner or later — perhaps sooner rather than later. If the Wildcats do just that, he’d would join junior Trevin Wade (47 tackles, 1 pick), one of the Pac-12’s best, as the team’s starting corners. It could be Richardson or fellow sophomore Jonathan McKnight, to be honest. Sophomore Marquis Flowers is next in line at strong safety.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Judging merely by what has been said — and said, and said again — since the end of last season, two things are guaranteed to occur in the Pac-12 South in 2011: one, Arizona State is obviously going to win the division; two, Arizona’s offensive line is going to be terrible. Hey, say something enough and you’ll eventually believe it — even if the first involves a tremendous leap of faith and the second involves burying a group before it even steps on the field. I’ll touch on the Sun Devils in the future; as for the line, is it true that you do have to be concerned about a group that will feature five first-year starters. At the same time, you have to recognize this line’s athleticism and potential while acknowledging its youth. Only one lineman brings starting experience into 2011: center Kyle Quinn started last season’s bowl loss in place of an injured Colin Baxter, so it’s no surprise that he’s become the leader of this new-look front. Two of the quartet of talented offensive linemen who took a redshirt last fall are poised to take over at tackle. Neither lack for size, as both left tackle Mickey Baucus and right tackle Fabbians Ebbele clock in at around 6’8. A third redshirt freshman, Trent Spurgeon, is right in the mix at both tackle spots. At least the guards bring some game experience into 2011: sophomore left guard Chris Putton played in five games a year ago, while junior right guard Trace Biskin — a coveted recruit back in 2008 — has three years of experience in this system. So the line is not game-tested, by and large. But these linemen are big — tall and wide — athletic and full of potential, so while they’ll be thrown into the fire in September look for an improved performance every Saturday. In addition, new offensive line coach Robert Anae is a good one, quick-trigger dismissal from B.Y.U. or no. He did a very nice job in the same capacity at Texas Tech in a similar offense.

Game(s) to watch

Arizona State, for starters. Last year’s loss snapped Arizona’s two-game winning streak in the Territorial Cup, which in turn came on the heels of three straight wins for the Sun Devils. In terms of the new Pac-12 South, the Wildcats get Utah and U.C.L.A. at home and the Sun Devils, U.S.C. and Colorado on the road.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell So who’s going to win the Pac-12 South? Without giving anything away, I’m not convinced that it will be the Sun Devils. I’m far less convinced that it’s going to be the Wildcats, however. Criner’s potentially season-ending issue is merely another massive roadblock thrown in the front of this team since the end of last season. Add him to the list: the five lost starters along the offensive line, the rash of knee injuries, the lost play-makers at end and so on and on. I’m not sure if another Pac-12 team has dropped so far, so fast since the end of last season — and I’m sure no conference opponent has taken such a slide since the start of last November. Can the Wildcats gather together and keep this train rolling along towards a fourth straight bowl trip? It’s going to take a large degree of mental fortitude to do so. That’s an intangible I really can’t quantify, and I definitely can’t do that until Arizona takes the field in September. What I can say is this: in terms of talent, I do think the Wildcats can get back into bowl play. Part of this faith stems from a schedule that’s not all that intimidating. Yeah, it starts with a bang, but Arizona could go on a major run from mid-October on — now that would be a change, wouldn’t it? It also stands to reason that this team will get better each week, as the offensive line rounds into form and a young defense, especially in the secondary, gets more and more game experience. Following that logic, I think Arizona will struggle early but do enough late in the year to get into bowl play. But even in a wide-open South division, I don’t think the Wildcats have what it takes to reach the Pac-12’s inaugural title game.

Dream season New faces, new coaches, no problem: Arizona starts strong and finishes late, taking home the Pac-12 South with a 10-2 regular season.

Nightmare season There’s just to much for this group to overcome, though stars like Foles do their best to keep the team afloat. The Wildcats finish below .500 for the first time since 2007.

In case you were wondering

Where do Arizona fans congregate? Take a trip to GoAZCats.com and Wildcat Scoop, the two big boys among Arizona fan sites. Don’t sleep on UASports.net, a fine independent Web site. For a blog’s take, check out Arizona Desert Swarm and Wildcat Sports Report.

Word Count

Through 61 teams 178,638.

Up Next

Who is No. 59? Tomorrow’s university has the largest student-run bus system in the state; the highest point in that same state is only open to the public on the first full weekends of June, July, August and September.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Tim says:

    Northern Illinois maybe?

  2. Eksynyt says:

    I think it’s the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champain next.

  3. Alan says:

    Nice analysis. No way Fat Lever is ahead of Sean Elliot.

  4. Noefli says:

    Didn’t you get panned last year for pegging them at 45, only to have them prove you right?

  5. BocaRocket says:

    Definitely NIU.

  6. Jarious says:

    I believe NIU on the bus thing… Dekalb is exciting in that way. But the northernmost point in IL is like…Wisconsin.

    Paul, btw, I think Arizona will fix their problem of winning in September and October this yr. 1-4 start is possible with this D.

  7. dc4azcats says:

    Good write-up as usuual – I especially liked the bit about OkState. Most folks – including quite a few Arizona fans think we will get crushed by Ok State TY. If we don’t turn the ball over like we did in the Alamo Bowl and we take advantage of the undersized secondary (Criner and Buckner are both 6’4) I think we will be fine.

    Criner did hit a rough patch but he was in the rec center last Thurs night playing hoops and having a good time by all accounts. Look for Criner to be ready to go come the start of the season.

    I think this will be Arizona’s best offense ever with two talented 6’4 guys on the outside and tons of talent on the inside with Douglas, Roberts, Morrison, Peace and others. Look for Arizona to throw the heck out of the ball TY.

    Not to mention how important it is in college when you have a senior starter at QB. Foles will have a huge year and as mentioned – look for Arizona to shatter all of it’s previous offensive records TY.

    Go back the last 4 years and the worse Stoops D was 2007 where they gave up 26.8 points a game. The last 3 years he hasn’t given up more than 24 points a game. Say what you want about the injuries but, Stoops always finds a way to put out a tough defense. this year will be no exception.

    If the offense can put up 30 plus a game and Stoops D plays to it’s average – Arizona will be fine.

    Stanford comes to Arizona and Stanford arguably lost more than any other team in the Pac with the departure of Harbaugh and Fangio. You don’t replace those guys.

    Oregon also comes to Arizona – what shape will they be in when they get here? I see Arizona going 3-3 to start the year and finishing strong to put itself in position to win the Pac 12 South.

    Paul: Thanks for the added notes. And great news about Criner.

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