The Arizona Wildcats football team showed great promise in its first year under head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Arizona (8-5, 4-5 Pacific-12 Conference) flirted with the Top 25 for much of 2012 and submitted perhaps the most exciting performance of the postseason in a New Mexico Bowl comeback against Nevada.
The Wildcats could have met the elusive 10-win threshold if not for close shootout losses to Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State.
With seven months until the 2013 squad begins regular-season action, a number of storylines are worth tracking.
Running back Ka'Deem Carey burst onto the national scene as a redshirt sophomore in his first season in Rodriguez's spread offense.
He led the nation with 1,975 rushing yards and accumulated 24 total touchdowns.
A 2012 first-team All-American, Carey is said to be a Heisman Trophy candidate in what may be his last season before he jumps to the NFL.
If he plays.
In a stunning month-long span starting Dec. 26, 2012, Carey allegedly engaged in three incidents that threaten how much field time he'll see in 2013.
In December, he was arrested after allegedly assaulting his pregnant ex-girlfriend. His supposed purpose? He wanted a lighter so he could "use an illegal substance."
The victim alleged that when she tried to prevent him from using the substance, he slammed her fingers in a door.
On Jan. 22, Carey was cited for driving on the highway with expired registration and without insurance.
Finally, four days later, Carey was ejected from a home Arizona men's basketball game.
When confronted about lacking tickets and sitting in multiple seats, Carey reportedly replied, "“Get the f— out of my face” and, soon after, “Do you know who I am? I’m an All-American,” according to the Arizona Daily Wildcat.
Carey was neither cited nor arrested.
The alleged assault, which was charged as a misdemeanor, obviously carries the biggest potential to threaten not only Carey's junior season, but also his future with the team and as a professional.
Rodriguez has stated that the team is aware of Carey's recent troubles and that it will punish him "internally," according to the Arizona Daily Star. Carey's next court date is on Feb. 28.
With plenty of time between now and the start of the regular season, it's unclear if Carey is in line for a in-season suspension or if that fate depends on how he conducts himself during the coming months.
At the least, the situation puts the spotlight on Rodriguez in terms of player discipline. How will Carey's status and his clear ties to the team's success weigh on the coach's decision?
Senior quarterback Matt Scott played an integral role in Arizona's success on offense last season, ranking seventh nationally in yards gained.
Given how poorly the team's defense played (more on that later), he arguably was the team's most valuable player.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, the team has a variety of intriguing options to replace him in 2013. Here are the three most likely going into spring camp:
B.J. Denker (senior; 6'3", 177 lbs)
A junior college transfer last season, Denker earned the nickname "Vanilla Vick" for his proficiency as both a runner and a passer.
He seldom played but performed admirably (12-of-14, 136 yards, 2 touchdowns; 9 rushes, 46 yards, touchdown) while starting for an injured Scott in a 56-31 victory over Colorado.
He largely deferred to Carey, who amassed a conference-record 366 rushing yards.
Jesse Scroggins (junior; 6'3", 210 lbs)
Scroggins arrived at USC as a highly touted prospect yet ended up playing two seasons for El Camino College before enrolling at Arizona this spring.
More of a pure pocket passer, Scroggins offers an incredibly strong arm.
Scroggins' more conventional skill set would present yet another challenge for Rodriguez—most recently accustomed to Denard Robinson and Scott—as he caters his play-calling to the strengths of his field general.
Anu Solomon (freshman; 6'1", 205 lbs)
Sports Illustrated has predicted that Solomon, a consensus 4-star recruit out of Nevada, has the best chance of any freshman quarterback to impact his team in 2013.
His dual-threat abilities seem to make him a perfect project—and, possibly, a Week 1 contributor—in the Wildcats spread attack.
At this point, the safe bet to start in September is Denker, based on his experience in the offense and his proven versatility.
With Denker under center, the team likely would operate a run-heavy gameplan that revolves around Carey, the kind of approach Rodriguez traditionally has employed with good success.
If Carey's off-field issues and/or an injury removes him as the offensive centerpiece, Scroggins would become the more likely No. 1 option.
While his presence may mean significantly less of the read-option, Rodriguez's bread-and-butter play, Scroggins likely is already the team's best passer.
His ability to spread the field vertically would complement a receiving corps that returns the highly productive Austin Hill (1,364 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2012) and many other veterans.
Though a bright prospect, Soloman would be a poor choice to start as a true freshman.
ESPN has noted a sparse record of successful first-year college quarterbacks, and Rodriguez likely would prefer to groom a player who could become his next high-profile success story.
Unless Denker and Scroggins get hurt or show incredible incompetence through fall camp, count on Solomon to redshirt in 2013.
Were it not for the Wildcats' horrific defense last season, the team could have achieved double-digit wins for only the third time in school history.
Arizona ranked 118th out of 120 FBS teams in yards allowed (499 per game). A big contributor was the lack of a pass rush—the team's 15 sacks ranked 108th nationally.
Based on those numbers, it's tempting to figure, "How could it get worse?"
But, in fact, there are actual reasons for optimism that Arizona will improve defensively this season:
Probably the biggest obstacle last season was a lack of able bodies.
The talent on the defensive line was woeful, after former head coach Mike Stoops was unable to recruit meaningful replacements for standout defensive ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore following the 2010 season.
In theory, that shouldn't have been a huge issue in 2012, given Arizona's switch to the 3-3-5 under new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
In Arizona's version of the scheme, the defensive linemen are asked to clog gaps and occupy blockers more than rush the passer.
These functions allow the three "true" linebackers and the two hybrid safeties/linebackers ("Spur" and "Bandit") to move around before the snap and confuse blocking assignments.
Accordingly, a dearth of play-making tackles and ends shouldn't have been fatal.
Unfortunately, Arizona's linebacker corps also was sucked dry, and the team was forced to rely on a number of young, if talented, secondary players. A series of in-season injuries doomed the unit's fate.
This year, all 11 defensive starters from the New Mexico Bowl will return, and reinforcements, especially at linebacker, have come through Rodriguez's first recruiting class (see next slide).
Return of impact performers
Although Arizona's defensive line still may make lack a household name this season, the defense should improve with the return of noteworthy members of its "back eight."
At linebacker, the team returns its two leading tacklers, seniors Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers. Flowers also led Arizona with 5.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
In the secondary, watch for junior Bandit Jared Tevis (third-best 82 tackles in 2012), junior Spur Tra'Mayne Bondurant (74 tackles, 11 for loss) and senior cornerback Shaquille Richardson (team-leading 14 broken-up passes).
While the majority of Rodriguez's first recruiting class seems intended to replace lost starters in 2014, a few names could make significant contributions this fall.
Rodriguez has secured 24 incoming athletes, including the Feb. 9 addition of 3-star defensive back David Price.
Overall, Arizona welcomes six wide receivers, five linebackers, three defensive linemen, three offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, two running backs, a safety and an athlete (Khari McGee, who projects to play quarterback).
The majority of true freshmen are likely to redshirt, provided injuries don't push them into action. This would be best for the team, as it hopes to accumulate quality depth that it lacked last season.
One new Wildcat more certain to contribute immediately is 4-star running back Pierre Cormier.
Cormier seems to have been recruited with the goal of his replacing Carey as soon as 2014. However, should Carey miss time this season due to suspension or injury, Cormier has the inside track on the starting gig, with last year's backup, Daniel Jenkins, having transferred to Washington State.
At the least, Cormier figures to get meaningful action in relief as the team preps him for a greater role.
Another touted prospect to watch is Samajie Grant, whose speed and frame (6'1", 175 pounds) projects him to compete for an inside receiver spot with returnees Richard Morrison, Tyler Slavin, Johnny Jackson and Garic Wharton.
Finally, the team should find reps for 4-star cornerback Derek Babiash, who may be groomed to replace Richardson after the season.
As much promise as holds for the Wildcats coming off a surprise season, it's quite possible the team will take a step backward in 2013, at least in the standings.
Arizona finished fourth out of six teams in the Pac-12 South division last year, behind USC, UCLA and Arizona State. Its 4-5 conference record ranked eighth in the conference.
On the plus side, the Wildcats' non-conference slate of Northern Arizona, UNLV and UT-San Antonio paces them for a second-straight 3-0 start.
And Stanford and Oregon State (combined 21-6 in 2012) leave the calendar, replaced by California and Washington State (combined 6-18).
Of the teams on the Wildcats' schedule, Oregon, UCLA, USC, Washington and Arizona State all project to field superior teams.
And the 'Cats may wish they had met the Golden Bears and the Cougars a year earlier.
California could enjoy a resurgence this season under spread-oriented new head coach (and former Arizona offensive coordinator) Sonny Dykes, while Washington State seemingly has to improve in its second year under Mike Leach.
With a deeper, more experienced defense and the likelihood of a strong running attack, the Wildcats should have the tools to surprise a few teams and upset preseason expectations.
At the same time, the conference has had a year to scout Rodriguez's approach on both sides of the ball.
Given the totality of circumstances, it's reasonable that Arizona reaps six or seven wins and another bowl berth in 2013, but little more.