After years and years of frustration, the Arizona Wildcats finally turned things around and made a bowl game in 2008 (and won to boot), following it up with another bowl season in 2009 (though that time they got embarrassed against Nebraska). Now they hope to continue their positive trend, and with a very favorable schedule, this could potentially be a breakout season for Mike Stoops’ program, provided they can adjust to new offensive and defensive co-ordinators and replace their defensive losses.
It’s actually pretty easy to project the Wildcats on offense: as usual they’ll have a great passing game, and a crummy running game that will light up a couple lousy defenses and be a non-factor the rest of the time. If anything, the passing game should be even better than it was last year, when it was very good. No one talks about Nick Foles as being the league’s best quarterback, but he put up better numbers in 2009 than anyone who’s coming back in 2010. And he returns three of his five starting linemen, and many of the receivers from last year (though losing Delashaun Dean after his offseason arrest hurts). Once again, this will be an excellent passing attack.
While it’s true that the running game hasn’t been very good, it has at least provided an occasionally effective counter-punch on offense, and will likely do the same again in 2010. Few defenses are scared of backs Keola Antolin and Nic Grigsby, but they will, as usual, have a good rushing average on the relatively low number of times they see the ball. And they will, as usual, torch a couple of lousy run defenses (most likely Toledo, The Citadel, Wazzu, and one or two others).
Arizona’s defense is definitely a question mark, but they could be good. Clearly, they don’t return many key players, but they have a history of churning out decent units, and they could certainly do it again.
The secondary should be the relative strength of the defense. Trevin Wade made 1st team Pac-10 last year and should only be better this year. Safety Robert Golden should be good as well. The rest of the unit is less experienced, but they have been recruiting decent talent and should be a decent to good unit overall. And they also return both starting defensive ends, which should result in an improved pass rush.
Unfortunately, rush defense looks a bit weaker. They have to replace both starting tackles and the whole starting linebacker corps. Most likely, as usual they will turn out decent here, but really good running teams (Oregon, Oregon St, maybe Stanford and/or USC) will probably have a lot of success against this unit.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
The only really huge upset win would be Oregon, and I don’t see that happening. However, I do give them a solid shot against Iowa, Oregon St and USC, all of whom will likely be favored against the ‘Cats.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
This team should be most vulnerable to a team that has a good run offense and pass defense. However, there aren’t any teams they face that qualify and that would also be “huge upset losses”.
Instead, I’d look at Cal (who has a good run game) as a potential letdown after a big game against Iowa, and UCLA (who has a good pass defense) as a bit of a sandwich game between a revenge game against Washington and a tough trip to Stanford.
With a lot of personnel losses on defense, and wholesale coaching changes on both sides of the ball, this team has a lot of work to do if they want to be serious Rose Bowl contenders. However, if they can find a way to figure things out, they have an extremely favorable schedule. I’m projecting an 8-4 record, just like in 2009, but they could easily end up anywhere from six wins and a minor bowl game to ten wins and a Rose Bowl appearance.
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. In 2009 it got even worse, falling from 5-7 to 4-8. Now it’s 2010 and it’s time to find out whether the Dennis Erickson era still has life left in it, or whether it’s time for them to move in a new direction.
Last year, this offense struggled both running and throwing the football, and now has to deal with heavy losses throughout the roster, including three starting linemen, the starting quarterback, the leading rusher, and the top two receivers. Worse news, Samson Szakacsy, the most effective quarterback last year when healthy, is again fighting injuries, which means that they’re left with Brock Osweiler (ineffective and couldn’t beat out Danny Sullivan) and Steven Threet (theoretically an upgrade, except he still hasn’t clearly beaten out the competitors).
The receivers could conceivably be decent news, as while they don’t have much experience, ASU has been recruiting some talent in this area, and newcomer George Bell could make a good impact, and Kery Taylor and Gerell Robinson could conceivably get better with another year of experience. The line is a huge question mark, as they return center Garth Gerhart and that’s it, which means that there will almost certainly be a learning curve to deal with (worsened by the career-ending knee injury of Zach Schlink).
Unfortunately, a very questionable offensive line won’t be supported by any running backs who have had much success in the past, making the run game look like a major weakness for this team, and could very well be the worst running attack in the Pac-10 (though the Cougars will likely be worse).
The good news is that, even with heavy personell losses, the run defense should remain strong. Vontaze Burfict is an excellent linebacker, Lawrence Guy is a very good tackle, and there’s talent elsewhere in the front seven.
The bad news, however, is in the pass defense. Omar Bolden should be a good corner, but there are holes everywhere else in the secondary. Unless there is huge improvement in that unit, any success defending the pass will depend heavily on the pressure generated by the front seven. This will mean that teams that are good at passing the ball with solid offensive lines (Stanford and Arizona are the best examples) will be extremely difficult matchups for the Sun Devils, and that anyone who likes to throw the ball will present issues.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Early season games in Tempe are always difficult for other teams to deal with, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave Oregon a tougher test than most expect, though an actual upset is a pretty big reach. A more interesting possibility is their mid-season trip to Cal. It comes off a bye week for ASU, it comes between USC and Oregon St for Cal, and will be against a team that should like to run the ball and will have an occasionally shaky quarterback. If they can turn that into a defensive slugfest, it’s possible that they can score the big upset.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
They won’t lose to the AA teams, so only Wazzu would count as a noteworthy upset loss. Unless Wazzu is enormously improved, that just doesn’t seem like a reasonable upset pick, especially in Tempe. If the Cougars try to air it out, maybe they have a puncher’s chance, but it still seems like a big reach to me.
After two straight losing seasons, the Erickson era has come under increasing fire. Unfortunately, 2010 doesn’t look like it’ll be much if any better. Two AA games should be easy wins, and Wazzu should be a win, but it’s tough to find many wins elsewhere on the schedule. I’m thinking 5-7, and to be honest they’re more likely to be 4-8 than 6-6. And because they play two AA teams, they’ll probably need seven wins to make a bowl game. That isn’t going to happen.
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