The Arizona Wildcats are in the midst of the one of the most hellish three-game stretches any FBS team will play this season (outside of the SEC of course). After getting shell-shocked by Brandon Weeden and #8 Oklahoma State 37-14 in Stillwater last week, the Wildcats face #6 Stanford and #12 Oregon in Tucson the next two Saturdays (not to mention a trip to the Coliseum to play USC after that).
Give credit to Mike Stoops and the Arizona Athletic Department for their Tom Izzo-like fearlessness in scheduling. Knowing how treacherous the start of their 2011 Pac-12 season was, the Wildcats could have easily slated in a cupcake game instead of the Cowboys.
Unfortunately, the reward for their bravery is a sudden early-season must-win scenario. They need to rebound against Heisman hopeful Andrew Luck and Stanford or else face the prospect of a 1-3 start to the season (my apologies for assuming a loss to an Oregon team that looks more like a field full of Ferraris than football players).
There is good news and bad news for the Wildcat faithful out there. I always like to hear the bad news first.
The bad news is that if you thought Brandon Weeden treated the Arizona defense like his personal piñata (he completed 42 of 53 passes for 397 yards), you may want to avert your eyes when Andrew Luck begins his aerial assault Saturday night.
Even without his mentor, former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, Luck would have to regress Jake Locker-style to both lose the Heisman and not be selected with the Indianapolis Colts’ first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Cardinal QB has shown no signs that this will happen, as he has led the offense to 101 points in Stanford’s two games thus far.
The good news for Arizona fans is that whether or not the Wildcats shock the college football world and win this game is largely irrelevant.
I know, I know, wins against Top 10 teams define seasons, give new life to coaches on the hot seat and even help recruiting. However, what victories against Top 10 teams should really accomplish is to vault the underdog into the national spotlight; to spur that team to continued success and possibly even BCS discussion.
Auburn and Oregon both did that last year; same for Iowa in 2009 and TCU in 2008. It is not just about relishing the limelight of your one shining moment, but building on those signature wins.
Now in its eighth season under head coach Mike Stoops, that is something the Arizona program has proven incapable of doing.
A trip down memory lane during Stoops' reign in Tucson may reveal some shortsighted fond memories, but eventual overall underachievement:
The Wildcats began 2-8 in Stoops’ first season before stunning arch-rival #18 Arizona State in the season’s final game. Stoops was able to build on that success by leading his team to a matching 3-8 record the following season.
One of those three illustrious 2005 season wins for Arizona came against #7 UCLA when the Bruins were 8-0 and looking towards the BCS. In only his second career start, Arizona QB Willie Tuitama led the Wildcats to a 52-17 thrashing of the Bruins. He was quickly anointed the next great college QB and the future looked bright for the Wildcats.
Arizona built on that historic win by finishing the season with back-to-back losses to a 1-8 Washington team and a 5-5 Arizona State squad.
Another landmark victory by Arizona, this time taking down #8 California who was 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-10 at the time. Even a 62-yard receiving touchdown and a 95-yard punt return touchdown by DeSean Jackson weren’t enough to stop the Wildcats from pulling the 24-20 upset. Arizona’s response to this win: a loss to Arizona State in the season’s final game with guaranteed bowl eligibility on the line.
Can you say déjà vu? Arizona beats #2 Oregon at home 34-24 (you may remember this Thursday night ESPN game in which Dennis Dixon blew out his knee and cost the Ducks a title shot). The Cats can clinch a .500 season and bowl eligibility with a win the following week at Arizona State. Arizona loses that game 20-17 to finish the season 5-7.
Arizona finally loses a game against a Top 10 opponent (a 17-10 defeat to #5 USC), but goes 8-5 and plays in their first bowl game under Stoops. This is turning into George Costanza "Opposite Day."
Last season Arizona wins a huge early season game at home against #9 Iowa, 34-27. It looked like the year Stoops and Company would finally break through, have a 10-win season and possibly challenge for a spot in the Rose Bowl. Instead, Arizona falters two weeks later to an Oregon State team that would eventually finish with a 5-7 record. The Wildcats never really regroup, lose their final five games and finish 7-6. So much for Pasadena.
So while this Saturday’s game is imperative to help the Wildcats avoid a 1-2 (or 1-3 or 1-4) start, Mike Stoops has repeatedly proven why Arizona fans shouldn’t put too much stock into the Stanford game, even if it does result in another Wildcat win against a Top 10 opponent.