Countdown to 2014 – No. 6 – Arizona
Note … This is the seventh in a series of previews for the 2014 season, ranking CU’s opponents from the easiest to most difficult.
Arizona is as combustible and unpredictable as their head coach, Rich Rodriguez. After taking West Virginia to new heights and Michigan to new depths, Rodriguez has led the Wildcats to a pair of 8-5 seasons in his two years in Tucson. While eight win seasons and bowl bids are distant dreams for Colorado fans who have not made bowl arrangements since 2007, they are not exactly creating momentum for Arizona.
Perhaps it’s not the 8-5 records which are at issue … it’s the way the Wildcats get there.
Take, for example, the last three regular season games of the 2013 season. After a close home loss to No. 16 UCLA, 31-26, the 6-3 Wildcats inexplicably lost, at home, to Washington State.
How did the Wildcats respond to the two-game losing streak (and the chance, with two games against top 15 teams to close out the season, of finishing up 6-6 and uninvited to the post-season)?
By mauling No. 5 Oregon, 42-16, in one of the most unexpected results of the 2013 college football season.
How did the Wildcats respond to their new-found momentum?
By being mauled by in-state rival, Arizona State, by the lopsided score of 58-21.
Colorado does not play Arizona until the first weekend of November. By then, Buff fans will have a much better idea about the quality of their team.
Arizona, meanwhile, may remain an enigma.
As noted, the Arizona Wildcats and their fans rode a roller coaster last fall. After opening with three routs of three out-manned opponents – Northern Arizona, UNLV, and UTSA – all at home, Arizona went on the road to open Pac-12 play … and promptly lost to Washington and USC.
With a 3-2, 0-2 record, the Wildcats hit the soft part of their schedule, taking down Utah at home before defeating cellar-dwellers Colorado and California on the road.
Now up to 6-2 overall, Arizona again posted a two-game losing streak, falling to UCLA and Washington State, only to destroy Oregon to get the nation’s attention. Rather than finish strong, however, Arizona was embarrassed by in-state rival Arizona State, 58-21, to close out the regular season with three losses in their last four games.
Invited to the Advocare V100 Bowl (formerly the Independence Bowl, for those trying to place some meaning behind the name), Arizona had little trouble dispatching Boston College, 42-19, to finish the 2013 season with an 8-5 record.
Here we go again?
In Year One of the Rich Rodriguez era, Arizona had a one-year starter at quarterback – Matt Scott.
In Year Two of the Rich Rodriguez era, Arizona had a one-year starter at quarterback – B.J. Denker.
In Year Three of the Rich Rodriguez era, Arizona may have a one-year starter at quarterback, former USC quarterback Jesse Scroggins.
Or … the Wildcats may usher in a completely new style of quarterback rotation, with a red-shirt freshman, Anu Solomon, taking over the position.
Whoever is taking the snaps for Arizona this fall, they will do so behind a strong offensive line, with four starters returning. This could be crucial in the development of the new quarterback, as the Wildcats have the look of a team which could prove one-dimensional.
Arizona, which finished 11th in the nation in rushing last season, and 97th in the nation in passing, may completely flip those numbers this fall.
Gone is Ka’Deem Carey, the All-American running back. Behind him are talented players … but none come into the 2014 campaign with a collegiate carry. Meanwhile, the wide receiver corps is loaded. Nate Phillips had the best numbers last year amongst the returning wideouts (51 receptions, 696 yards, seven touchdowns), and he may be forced to fight for playing time. Austin Hill is back, after missing the entire 2013 season with a knee injury. Also in the mix are two transfers – DaVonte Neal (from Notre Dame) and Cayleb Jones (from Texas).
If Arizona can settle upon a quarterback and a running back, there is every reason to believe that the Arizona offense is capable of matching last season’s numbers, when the Wildcats were 36th in the nation in scoring (33.5 ppg.) and 31st in total offense (458.5 ypg.).
Conversely, if no preeminent quarterback emerges, and the running game fails to produce decent numbers, Arizona could struggle in 2014.
Arizona’s defensive lineup sounds a great deal like Colorado’s … a makeshift defensive line which could prove to be a disaster; a linebacker corps led by a sophomore who had a great freshman season; and a secondary loaded with returning starters who need to show they can take advantage of their game experience.
The Arizona defensive line is suspect. All you need to know … the starting nose guard could be sophomore Dwight Melvin, who comes into the 2014 season with no starts and limited playing time last fall. The Wildcats have brought in transfers and junior college players to shore up the line – potentially a risky proposition.
The only returning starter at linebacker for Arizona is sophomore Scooby Wright, who was fourth on the team with 83 tackles last season. The other linebackers are as young as Wright … but not as experienced nor as talented.
Which means that the Wildcat secondary will have to have to keep games in control. Four of the five starters from last season return, and they are all seniors. Three-year starting cornerback Jonathan McKnight may be up for all-conference honors, while linebacker/safety Tra-Mayne Bondurant will be starting for his fourth season.
Arizona is well set up for an undefeated September … and possibly a winless October.
The Wildcats open at home against UNLV, a team which Arizona beat 58-13 last year on the road. A road trop to San Antonio to face UTSA (a 38-13 Arizona win in 2013) will be followed by home games against Nevada (4-8 in 2013) and California.
A 4-0 start for the Wildcats is certainly not out of the question.
The next four games on the schedule – the four games Arizona will play before facing Colorado – could all be losses.
A Thursday night game in Eugene against Oregon (and don’t think the Ducks won’t be looking for some payback on national television) could get ugly. The Wildcats then face USC at home before taking on Washington State in Pullman. The week before Arizona plays Colorado, they face a showdown with the Bruins of UCLA.
A 4-0 start followed by an 0-4 run is a possibility.
If that were to occur, the Wildcats will be desperate for a win when Colorado comes to town on November 8th. If the 2013 season is any guide, that is not a frame of mind the Buffs want the Wildcats to be in come early November.
Arizona is a hard team to read, and even harder to predict.
Add in the fact that Colorado will not face Arizona until game ten for the Buffs (game nine for the Wildcats), and the game is even more difficult to handicap this far out.
Will Arizona find/develop a quarterback? Will the Wildcats find/develop a running game? Will Colorado still be in the hunt for a bowl game in early November? Can Colorado figure out a way to compete in the desert (since joining the Pac-12, CU is 0-3 on the road against the Arizona schools, with maulings of 54-13, 56-31, and 48-14)?
Arizona no longer has Ka’Deem Carey, who crucified the Buffs’ defense the past two seasons. The Wildcats do not appear to have the makings of a strong rushing team this fall, and may well have an offense which plays into CU’s defensive strengths. Meanwhile, if Arizona can’t patch together a defensive line, the Wildcats may prove vulnerable to the type of offensive attack Colorado hopes to employ this fall.
Only one thing is certain about the CU/Arizona game … If Colorado hopes to post a winning record in 2014, and hopes to be bowling come December, the Arizona game is an opportunity.