Even though the season won't kick off until early September, I thought it would be fun to take a look around the conference for a quick preview of the other eleven teams -- in no particular order. We'll get more in depth during the week before the Cardinal plays each team, but for now we've got a quick overview of how the team looks at this point as seen through the eyes of a blogger who knows that team best. Enjoy.
Arizona Wildcats (Pac-12 South)
Head Coach: Mike Stoops (40-45)
2010: (7-6, 4-5, T-5th)
Lost to Stanford, 42-17
The Arizona Wildcats opened the 2010 season looking like one of the top teams in the country and certainly a contender for that elusive Pac-10 championship. Having won seven of their first eight games, including a statement win at home over a highly-ranked Iowa team, Arizona headed to Palo Alto ranked #16 in the country and riding a tough defense that looked ready to challenge Andrew Luck and the Cardinal.
It looked to be a classical battle of strength against strength. Arizona's defense had notched 27 quarterback sacks, third in the nation, while the Cardinal offensive line had surrendered only three, second best in the NCAA. The Stanford offense had yet to be tested by a strong defense, so there were those who felt the road team might be able to sneak in come away with an upset. It didn't happen that way. Here's a bit of what I wrote following the game:
The Stanford offense has been a juggernaut all season long, but this was really the first time we've seen them firing on all cylinders. The usual balance was there with 217 yards rushing and 293 yards passing, but against the best defense the conference has to offer, a team that had been yielding only sixteen points a game in league play, the Cardinal was explosive. It was surprising when a possession ended without points, and each time they broke the huddle and jogged to the line of scrimmage they were a threat to score...
Stanford would come away with a convincing 42-17 victory, and the game would be a turning point for both schools' seasons. The Cardinal went on to play nearly flawless football for the rest of the year, winning their final four games as they wrapped up the best season in school history.
The Wildcats, however, wouldn't win again. There was a narrow loss to USC, a blowout at the hands of #1 Oregon, a heartbreaker in their rivalry game versus Arizona State, and another blowout in the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State. In their defense, this was the teeth of their schedule as they faced the top teams in the conference, but good teams don't stumble to the tape that way.
If things go well for Arizona, it will likely be because of their explosive offense. The Pac-12 has been marketing itself as the conference of quarterbacks, and the names at the top of the marquee for the past two years have been Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Darron Thomas, and Jake Locker. In any other conference Arizona's Nick Foles would be the golden boy, but here he's been unfairly overlooked, and it's a shame. Right now he sits in seventh place on the all-time Arizona passing list, but after his first two games this year he'll be in third. Even so, he's already the best quarterback in Wildcat history. In the last two years he's totaled 5,677 yards passing and 39 touchdowns, and this year he should be even better.
Not only is he a year older and wiser, but so is his favorite target, wideout Juron Criner. After he caught 82 balls for 1,233 yards and eleven touchdowns, most thought Criner would head for the NFL, but he chose to return and could be the top receiver in the conference. Criner will obviously get a lot of attention from opposing defenses, but teams that focus solely on him will do so at their peril. University of Texas transfer Dan Buckner (who redshirted in 2010) gives Foles another large, athletic receiver to work with, and another reason for defensive coordinators to worry.
It's not all good news on that side of the ball, though. The entire offensive line will have to be replaced, and that could obviously affect Foles and the rest of the offense. There are question marks on defense as well, and it could be that the Wildcats will simply have to outscore the other team in order to win this year. Will they be able to keep things together enough to compete in the Pac-12 South? I checked in with my friends at Arizona Desert Storm, and Kevin Zimmerman was nice enough to give me some pretty thorough answers. Check it out...
What are fans excited about for this season?
Arizona Desert Swarm:
As far as the team is concerned, there's a lot of apprehension about how well the Wildcats will finish record-wise this season. But if there's anything to be excited about, it's a talented quarterback who has not only a deep and sure-fire wide receiving crew, but two wideouts who could be All-Americans. Nick Foles has options with fellow senior Juron Criner and Texas Longhorn transfer Dan Buckner as two 6-foot-4, 215-plus-pound targets with speed and playmaking ability. Criner was questionable to play after he left this summer to spend time with his ill mother, but apparently he's ready to go and has been playing in camp. Meanwhile, Buckner has shown signs of being among the upper-echelon of college football receivers during the first days of drills.
What are the biggest concerns facing the team?
As good as Foles' receivers might be, that means nothing if an offensive line with a combined one (yes, one) career start of experience can't give the quarterback enough time to set his feet. And coming off a year where the Wildcats weren't too confident in the run game, that could be a big problem.
In addition, ACL tears have hit Arizona hard during the offseason. Defensively, starting safety Adam Hall and starting linebacker Jake Fischer have been out and while expected to return sooner than originally planned, both will still miss a good portion of the season. Hall is perhaps the defense's best head-hunter, so that was a big loss. Willie Mobley, a back-up defensive tackle, and Greg Nwoko, the No. 2 runningback, also had ACL tears.
What's the best-case scenario for the team?
Nine wins is a 5 percent possibility, but it's not like Arizona doesn't have the talent to compete with anyone. If they can harness a consistency across the board and fix their kicking inabilities, the Wildcats might be able to pull off an early upset or even two. I see them being on equal ground against anyone in the conference outside of Stanford and Oregon, and even those teams they've competed well with in the last few years. Do I think it'll happen? No. But maybe Stoops's crew will finally break through.
What's the worst-case scenario for the team?
After a season-opener against Northern Arizona, the Wildcats play Oklahoma State, who smacked U of A in the Alamo Bowl to end last season, then Stanford, Oregon, USC and Oregon State -- consecutively. They're not going to get out of that well. If they respond poorly to that result, well, it could be ugly. Worst-case is that they take a number of early losses and worsen the matter by mentally breaking down. If the schedule beats them down, then those favorable match-ups toward the end of the year could end up being losses as well. As I say, there's a slim chance at winning nine games, but this team could also have a losing record. It's that uncertain from my point of view.
Realistically, how do you expect the season to pan out?
I think finishing 7-5 is totally possible and also likely considering that this team does have a good deal of talent offensively. That's not to mention they're usually pretty solid defensively, something that for some reason was lost after a great start last year. The brutal front-end of the schedule could put Arizona at 1-5 or 2-4, but the backend of it is much easier. Halfway through the season, the Wildcats will likely have their backs against the wall, forcing them to have enough tenacity and a sense of urgency to win when they're supposed to, and they should make a lower-tier bowl game.
- California Golden Bears
- Colorado Buffaloes
- Oregon Ducks
- Oregon State Beavers
- Utah Utes
- Washington Huskies
- Washington State Cougars