Coming off a huge win at home against a top 10—at the time No. 9—Iowa Hawkeyes 34-27, Mike Stoops and Tucson crazed fans were going bonkers thinking of a possible nine-win season.
The past three seasons have ended on fairly tough notes, as they have come up short three years in a row from winning a possible ninth game. Last year, they were smoked in the Alamo Bowl despite out-gaining Oklahoma State 370-312.
They got crushed in the turnover battle at minus-four and eventually lost the game 36-10. The previous year they were obliterated worse in a loss to Nebraska, as they were pummeled 33-0! They did, however, defeat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl 31-21 to finish 8-5, but they came up short of reaching that nine-win plateau.
What is so important about that nine, or dare I say, ten-win season? Although most experts look for a seven-win squad to turn their next season around and reach a possible New Year’s Day Bowl, the 9-to-10 win plateau is often used as a springboard towards amazing future success.
Before you take one huge leap, you must learn to take an average-sized leap first.
The magical thing about success is consistency. Unless the next Cam Newton is walking through the door, you must win eight or nine before you even sniff a 10-win season. Also, AZ has not won 10 or more games since Dick Tomey was the coach in 1998 (12-1).
Trung Candidate and Chris McAlister were the stars of the team, and it just happened to be the very first year of the Bowl Championship Series, which just goes to show you how long it has been since the ‘Cats have been nationally recognized.
Before Stoops came over, ‘Zona went 2-10 under John Mackovic, and it was clear they needed a change. The offense was way too vanilla, and it just lacked that extra flavor that the premier teams in conference had.
Quarterbacks were able to either thread the needle with ease or athletic enough to scramble back in the pocket and pick apart a secondary. It was not since ’78 that Arizona had a quarterback that made All Pac-10 honors.
Stoops changed that when he recruited and landed Willie Tuitama. Though he just made Second Team in ’08, Tuitama broke the all-time record for most passing yards in Arizona program history and was one of the few players to change the culture on offense.
Nowadays, it has been senior-laden QB Nick Foles, who was once a Michigan State Spartan. He threw for 1,233 yards along with 20 TD’s and only 10 INT’s. He was once highly praised as one of the elite QB’s, not just in the conference, but in America.
Stoops said there were way too many times last year where Foles held onto the ball way too long. He had one of the best receivers in America a season ago in Juron Criner, who hauled in 82 balls for 1,233 yards and 11 TD’s. There is only one major issue, however.
Criner status for the entire 2011 season was once in doubt due to undisclosed medical issues. ESPN reported this and Arizona local NBC newscaster Bruce Cooper reported that a family member was seriously ill and that before the illness Criner himself was in the hospital.
However, Criner is back at 100 percent and is primed for an All-American season.
Texas transfer Dan Buckner will fill in admirably as the ‘Cats No. 2 receiver. The second option last season was David Douglas, but many expect David Roberts to be the one who is dazzling us this season.
It is vital for somebody to step up as the third receiver since all the solid corners in the Pac-12 will be matched up against Criner. Terrence Miller is yet another viable option (29 catches for 345 yards), and hopefully he could rise to the occasion if his name is called.
The line will determine how good this offense is. They return zero starters, though one returnee has significant experience, but they are arguably the least experienced group in the entire nation.
They need to find ways to open holes for running back Keola Antolin (5’8'', 195 pounds), who rushed for seven TDs and 668 yards in a backup role to Nic Grigsby.
Antolin is the man this year, finally, and he must stay healthy and find more ways to get involved in this offense (pass catching, blitz pickup could use work). His backup this year will be the spring warrior himself Daniel Jenkins (5’9'', 187-pound sophomore), who is a quick water bug.
The defense was very good one year ago, but they lose their two best linemen arguably in school history, minus that Tedy Bruschi guy. Brook Reed (No. 2 DC HOU) and Ricky Elmore (No. 6 DC GB) totaled for 17.5 sacks just last year alone.
The team did have 33 sacks, mainly because Second Team freshmen All-American tackle Justin Washington contributed significantly with six sacks and 5.5 tackles for losses.
He will receive more constant double teams and needs to get some help from his two speed rusher (Mohammed Usman & CJ Parish). This front four will dramatically worsen because of losing their two all-conference studs.
The LB core will be mediocre at best despite returning their two starters and three of their top six tackles. The linebackers feasted off great push up front by the line, and now that it is completely different, it will be up to the linebackers to create pressure in the backfield.
A change of roles is not what Stoops has in mind, as he expects his front seven to continue the great play they have displayed on the field the past few years. They ranked 33rd, allowing only 131 yards per game.
The secondary is always solid and their 46th ranking allowing only 209 yards per game should be improved since most of the Pac-12 teams will be attempting to gash their front seven.
Free safety Robert Golden and corner Trevin Wade are very talented and are the senior leaders on this squad. With Wade playing possum, he will be hoping that he is thrown at since there are some inexperienced players throughout the rest of the secondary.
Shaq Richardson is a transfer from UCLA that will be tested depending on how he performs, which may determine if this pass D is among the best in the conference or not.
I expect the ladder and not the former because the front seven will be getting gashed so much that it is just demoralizing for a team to get abused, and when you least expect the deep ball is when in all likelihood it comes right at you.
That will be quite the five game stretch that should make or break the ‘Cats. After a bye they close the season with a much lighter schedule against UCLA, UW (road), Utah, Colorado (road), ASU (road), and Louisiana.
Having Criner ready to go, it should make life easier despite this upcoming top 20 difficulty schedule. Still, they caught a ton of breaks by having only five games missed from their starters last season.
However, if they are not lucky I still see the 'Cats reaching a bowl game thanks in large part to a filthy receiving corp.
Predicted Finish: 7-6, 4-5
Predicted Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Predicted order of finish in Pac-12: Fourth in South, Seventh in Pac-12