The holidays have come and gone, but the regrets that follow the constant binging during the most wonderful time of the year still lie ahead for many.
For college football fans with teams playing during the bowl season, the holidays provide them with an opportunity to stuff their faces with outlandish 2010 expectations, devouring hopes that their team’s success this season will somehow turn into BCS dreams the following year.
After thriving steadily for most of season within the Pac-10, fans with ties to the Tucson area couldn’t help but swallow up all of the hype about this team’s BCS bowl potential next season.
But after a terrible showing at the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, were these pre-bowl expectations a little too lofty?
Arizona entered this holiday season riding the high of their best Pac-10 record in over 10 years. The Wildcats improved within their conference for the third straight season, and their future looked oh-so-merrily bright.
While their offense experienced varying degrees of growing pains throughout the season, sophomore quarterback Nick Foles led the team admirably, collecting 2,438 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first season as a regular starter. With another year under his belt, it appeared that Foles was becoming the steady offensive commander that this re-emerging organization needed to win consistently over the next few years.
But the inconsistency created by this young offense during the year forced the Wildcats to lean heavily on a defense that ranked near the top in almost every Pac-10 category, most impressively in sacks (34), rushing defense (111.9 yards/gm), and total defense (315.8 yards/gm).
In what was a rather turbulent year in the Pac-10, this awkward mixture of inexperienced offense and solid defense would be just enough for Arizona to finish second. And even though a BCS bowl narrowly slipped through their grasps, several consecutive seasons of noticeable improvement provided Arizona with the hope that a similar opportunity was just around the corner.
Unfortunately, Arizona’s despicable performance in the 2009 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl raises certain concerns about how this team would perform if these conference championship dreams happen to reach fruition.
No one expected the Wildcats’ offense to go off on AP Player of the Year Ndamukong Suh and the Nebraska defense, but the display they put on in Qualcomm Stadium was outright embarrassing, collecting only six first downs and under 109 yards of offense.
“Maybe we came out a little too high,” Foles commented at the postgame conference, discussing Arizona’s woeful offensive performance. “Everybody was hyped because we were at the Holiday Bowl.”
If this is how Foles and the Arizona offense prepare for this magnitude of a bowl, they probably would have a tri-tip's chance in a dog pound of surviving a BCS bowl.
The Wildcats converted only two third-down opportunities through the first three quarters, and gained three garbage conversions late in the game. Their inability to hit the big, long play (something that seemed to boost their offense throughout the season) held this offense in neutral for the entire game.
But considering the youth on Arizona’s offense and the fierce nature of the Nebraska defense, this performance can almost be excusable. The Wildcats knew it would be a fight to put points up on this defense, and a full-on street brawl is what they got.
What should worry Arizona fans most about this Holiday Bowl outing was the way that their defense preformed against a supposedly anemic Nebraska offense.
It is probably safe to say that Arizona has seen more explosive offense this season than Zac Lee and Nebraska’s 24.5-points-per-game offense. Amazingly, the “Big Red” became the fourth team to put 30 or more points on the Wildcats this season.
Lee had been extremely inconsistent leading into this Holiday Bowl game, throwing three interceptions in the Big 12 Championship game, and passing for only three touchdowns in his past seven games.
However, a California homecoming must have been just what the doctor ordered, because he found a way to march this offense all over the Wildcats.
While Lee would only complete 56.5 percent of his passes, he would connect with Niles Paul on a 74-yard touchdown pass that would be the nail in the Wildcat coffin.
But where the Wildcats seemed to absolutely collapse—and where Lee took advantage of this defense the most—was against the run.
Zac burned the Arizona defense early with a 4-yard bootleg touchdown, and he seemed to get it done the entire night with his feet, gaining 65 yards on the ground. The Wildcats really had no answer to any of the Cornhuskers' run plays, allowing over 220 yards on the ground.
This lack of dominance on either side of the ball has to make the faithful wonder what their team would have done against any of the other BCS bowl contestants.
If they can allow an offense ranked 123rd in the nation to run all over them, what is going to happen when they have to face a more formidable opponent that has a proven and consistent offense?
Also, will their offense be able to steer clear from the big bowl game hype and be able to stay focused enough to play the game that devout Pac-10 supporters know they are capable of playing?
As Mike Stoops has proven in the past, he has the ability to help Arizona improve on any noticeable blemishes from the previous season. But while a BCS bowl appearance for this squad next year is not entirely unimaginable, the likelihood that these Wildcats can bring home a BCS victory is much slimmer than many would like to admit.