After years and years of frustration, the Arizona Wildcats finally turned things around and made a bowl game (and won to boot). Now they hope to continue their positive trend, though with a tougher schedule, it may be difficult to make much more progress in 2009. There are positive signs, such as a very good receiver corps and a fairly experienced defense, but until proven otherwise, this is still a team that tends to beat itself, that loses to really bad opponents (New Mexico in 2008, Washington in 2005, 2006 and very nearly 2007), and that struggles year after year in close games (0-4 in 2008, 2-4 in 2007, 2-1 in 2006, 1-5 in 2005, 1-2 in 2004). Unless that changes, their ceiling is what they did last year: a win in a minor bowl game.
On offense, the major question is quarterback. For whatever reason, despite winning a bunch of blowouts last year, they never bothered to give any of the backups much experience (Matt Scott threw all of eleven passes); now is when they're going to have to suffer the consequences for not planning ahead (it's also worth noting that had they not wasted Tuitama's redshirt by burning it well after 2005 went into the gutter, they wouldn't have this problem). At any rate, Matt Scott was a highly regarded recruit when he came in, as is backup Nick Foles, so despite basically zero experience at the position, they ought to get decent production, though there will certainly be growing pains early. Helping out significantly will be Arizona's receivers, far and away the strength of the offense. Delashaun Dean and Terrell Turner will both be very good this year, and tight end Rob Gronkowski will be fantastic again.
The offensive line should be fairly good. Center and the left side of the line will have plenty of experience, though the right side of the line will be rebuilding. It won't be a great unit, but it should do well. Running back could be good if they improve. Unfortunately, the aggregate stats from last year were fairly deceiving; in blowout wins over Idaho, Washington, and Washington St they got a bunch of yards on the ground, but otherwise they tended to struggle a lot. With Grigsby and Antolin both back, they ought to improve, but to be good there's a lot of work to be done.
Overall this offense will take a step back from last year, since Tuitama is gone and the running game won't be good enough to pick up the slack, but there's enough talent and experience here that it shouldn't be more than a small step back.
Arizona's defense should be pretty good. They struggled at times last year (especially giving up 55 points at Oregon), but they had a number of good moments, and return many important performers.
The secondary should be the strength of the defense. Cam Nelson will be a very good free safety, Devin Ross will be very good at corner, Robert Golden should be decent at strong safety, and they should do OK at the other corner slot.
The front seven looks a bit worse, but should still be pretty decent. They have two honorable mention all-Pac-10 players in tackle Earl Mitchell and end Brooks Reed, and the other two on the line have some experience as well. All three linebackers have experience, though technically only one of them had enough starts to qualify as a returning starter. Overall, the defense should be good, especially against the pass. Since the offense should take a small step back, the defense will probably have to carry this team, but I think they should be up to the task.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
One game which no one seems to think they've got a chance at is Oregon. The Wildcats have won two of three against the Ducks, they've got enough good pass-catchers to do well against the Duck secondary, and by then QB should be pretty well settled. If quarterback can get settled fairly early, they might have a shot at winning at Oregon St (who may have serious secondary issues), though if things aren't working, that game could turn very ugly.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Central Michigan is a dangerous opener, even though it's at home. With zero experience at quarterback, the Wildcats are vulnerable to a very slow start, and the Chippewas have a veteran team that might be able to take advantage. With the Wildcats' history of head-scratching losses, it's not crazy to think that they might actually lose to Washington St, who ought to have improved enough to knock someone off, though that's a major reach, given that it's homecoming and off a bye.
They finally made it to the post-season, but taking another step forward will be much tougher. The schedule is much harder than last year; the Pac-10 as a whole should improve, Central Michigan should be decent, and a road trip to Iowa is much tougher than anything they saw non-conference in 2008. This team should be better than they were last year, but I don't think the record will reflect that improvement. My guess is 6-6 or 7-5, with a shot at five or fewer wins if they can't get good production at quarterback.
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. In 2008, they were the bad surprise team of the league (along with Washington), falling all the way down to a 5-7 record, their first losing record since 2003. Now it's 2009 and it's time to see whether they're the 10-3 team from 2007, the 5-7 team from 2008, or somewhere in between the two.
Last year, this was a pass-first offense. Now they've lost their quarterback and leading receiver, which means that there's likely to be a sizable step back from a 2008 showing which was the worst they've had this millennium. Still, there is some good news. Running backs Shaun DeWitty and Dmitri Nance return, as do three starting linemen, so the running game could improve a bit and pick up some of the slack. And while they will definitely miss receiver Michael Jones, everyone else of note returns, so if they can get decent performance out of the quarterback position, they might still be OK.
As usual, defense is where this team is really going to shine. Aside from the 54 points they surrendered to Oregon, this unit was strong pretty much every week in 2008, and should get even better this year.
They will be led by their linebackers, which has the potential to be the best in the Pac-10. Mike Nixon was first team Pac-10 last year, Travis Goethel was a solid player, and Vontaze Burfict is one of the best recruits ever to sign with ASU. Defensive line should also be strong. End Dexter Davis was another first team Pac-10 player, and tackle Lawrence Guy was a freshman All-American. The other two linemen aren't quite as good, but both should still be good.
The secondary won't quite be in the same league as the front seven, but should still be solid. The safeties are fairly inexperienced, but both corners are returning starters, so while the unit is light on star power, there's still some experience there, and at least it shouldn't be a weakness. Overall, this is a very strong defense; they'll have to carry the team, but they should be up to the task.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Late in the season, ASU will get back to back home games against Cal and USC. If either team is off their game (and Cal often is on the road), an upset is quite possible.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Two games stand out to me as being possible. The first is Louisiana-Monroe. Yes, they're just a mid-level Sun Belt team, but they also won at Bama in 2007 and nearly at Arkansas in 2008, and return a boatload of players. If ASU takes them lightly, that could be a loss. The second is Washington State. The Cougars are really bad, but have a decent chance to knock someone off, and they get ASU at home for a homecoming game. Wazzu's secondary is a major weakness, but if the Sun Devils aren't getting good quarterback play (quite possible), that weakness may not play a big factor, and with a few breaks they're capable of pulling the shocker.
There are too many question marks on offense to expect anything like a return to where they were in 2007, but this should still be an improved team. With a very strong defense, an inexperienced quarterback, and a solid home field advantage (especially early in the year) this will definitely be an up and down team, but I'd be surprised to not see them in a bowl game, especially with two expected wins in their non-conference slate. 6-6 or 7-5.
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