The Arizona Wildcats are finally ready to turn things around and make some noise in the Pac-10. This time, things will be different. At least, that's the plan. Unfortunately, that was also the plan in both 2006 and 2007, when they had more experience and depth. They've got plenty of firepower in the passing game, and they'll need every bit of it, because they'll be giving up a lot of points as well.
The good news is that they've got a great senior quarterback in Willie Tuitama, a talented receiver corps, an experienced offensive line, and a really good offensive coordinator in Sonny Dykes, who is perfectly suited to take advantage of this kind of setup. It's no exaggeration to think that this unit could turn into the best passing attack in the league this year.
That said, you can't help but look at the giant elephant in the room, which is Tuitama's health. This is a guy who's battled injuries his whole career, and who missed part of 2006 (and wasn't great when he was healthy enough to play either). If he's healthy, this is a great passing game, but if not, there's nobody with any experience behind him, which could make things very difficult. A good line and a talented group of receivers certainly helps, but it's just impossible to know for sure how this will work out.
Compounding the issue is the running game. Out of the 12 games Arizona played last year, only five times did they break 50 yards running, and one of those was just barely. If you throw out their dominating performances against NAU and Wazzu, the running attack was nothing short of a disaster. Obviously, you have to expect them to improve, but they could still stink running the ball even if they do take a big step forward.
This looks to be the weakness of the team. In 2006, the Wildcat defense was legitimately strong, but it regressed in a major way last year, despite returning everyone of note. Now they have to massively rebuild, losing a first round draft pick in Antoine Cason, a great linebacker in Spencer Larsen, and plenty of other key players.
For the run defense, they do return a couple of players who look to have a positive impact. Linebacker Ronnie Palmer wasn't the star of the team last year, but he was still an important contributor, and strong safety Cam Nelson was good as well. There's not much experience at defensive tackle or the other linebacker positions, though, so they've still got a fair number of question marks here.
The pass defense, on the other hand, looks like a pretty big hole right now. For the last few years, Antoine Cason has really helped make this unit respectable, and now he's gone. Filling in the gaps are a pair of corners who have some experience but haven't been able to make an impact. The defensive ends won't be stars, but they might be better than expected, as Jonathan Turner has done a decent job in the time he's played so far.
Ultimately, the defense is going to be the make or break part of this team. If the coaches can turn a bunch of inexperienced and largely untested players into a strong unit, they could have a surprisingly good year, but if not, things are going to be very difficult.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
They've got home games against Cal, USC and ASU, and have clearly been competitive against each in recent years. It's not a question of whether they can pull one of these off, but rather which one will fall to them.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
New Mexico. Again. Sure, the Lobos lose a boatload from last year, and yes, Albuquerque is hardly the toughest place to visit and walk away with a win, but if there's one thing I've learned to count on, it's a couple of big-time eggs laid by Mike Stoops teams early in the year. Moreover, in the four seasons he's been in Tucson, they've lost all four road openers and only been competitive once (Utah, 2005). Just because they can't afford to lose this game doesn't mean they won't find a way to blow it.
To paraphrase Charles De Gaulle, the Arizona Wildcats are the team of the future, and always will be. At least, that's what they're going to be under Mike Stoops. With a very easy non-conference slate, the Wildcats have a good chance of finding their way into a bowl game, and they'll probably register another big upset, but it's all too clear that they're not capable of playing at a high level consistently. Unless things change in a big way, this team will be a spoiler for someone, get a low-level bowl berth, and that's it.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
In 2007, the Arizona State Sun Devils were clearly the surprise team of the league, turning years of underachievement under Dirk Koetter into an impressive second place Pac-10 finish, and very nearly (if only Washington had gotten one more touchdown in Honolulu) an at-large BCS berth. Now it's 2008 and it's time for an encore performance.
First and foremost, this is a passing team. Led by quarterback Rudy Carpenter, and fueled by a talented receiving corps, ASU will once again boast a dangerous passing attack. That said, the running game should be good as well. Leading rusher Keegan Herring returns, as does a solid backup in Dmitri Nance, and they add a highly touted recruit in Ryan Bass to the mix.
However, the offensive line is a bit of a question mark. This was a line that gave us 55 sacks last year, and now they lose three of the five starters. They should be decent, but this is clearly a question mark, because if they struggle, the entire offense will suffer as a result.
Defense is where this team is really going to shine. While they had some hiccups (52 points against Texas, 44 against USC, and more than 30 against the Oregon schools), this unit was generally good. This year they should be better.
The pass defense especially looks strong. They'll certainly miss cornerback Justin Tryon, but they return a very good safety in Troy Nolan and a pair of very productive defensive ends. The corners this year don't look like stars, but with the talent around them, they won't have to be.
The run defense also looks good, though it won't quite be on the same level as the pass D. Linebacker Robert James was the start of the defense last year, and losing him certainly hurts. However, there's plenty of experience coming back, as the other two linebackers both return and have been very good, and the defensive line looks solid.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Well, there's this big early season game against this highly-ranked team from the SEC, and call me crazy, but I think these guys have a chance.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Washington and Arizona both look like teams that are capable of taking down a big name or two. Neither one would be a stunner of a loss.
There are certainly some question marks here, such as the line, the way they won all of their close games last year (which probably won't happen again), and the schedule (visiting both Cal and USC, in back to back weeks no loss, isn't much fun). That said, this looks like an extremely impressive team, and if USC has a down year, these guys definitely look like the team with the best shot at picking up the slack and winning the league. Or, if they can find a way to beat Georgia in September, don't be surprised if they find their way into an at-large BCS bid.
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