Look back at 2012 and consider, for a moment, the plight of the Arizona Wildcats. If you take in the totality of the season - from the surprise hire of Rich Rodriguez, to the upset of Oklahoma State, to the crucifixion at the hands of the Ducks all the way out to amazing conclusion to their bowl game, it is hard to not come to one simple conclusion:
Arizona is the Charlie Sheen of the Pac 12.
Don't follow? Arizona talks a lot about "winning" but is just as prone to famous bursts of success as it is to spectacular instances of flaming out.
But, seriously, you have to hand it to them. Whatever direction they go in on a week to week basis, they showed a tendency to go big. There was no in-between when it came to version one of these Rodriguez-led Wildcats. The question is, do the peaks and valleys that we saw last year become less drastic such that a truly competitive threat to the Pac 12 South title emerges in Tuscon. Let's open the Gekko File and see what we find.
Gekko File Accountability: What I said in 2012
"Despite my doom and gloom, Arizona has some good opportunities in 2012. I'm a fan of Matt Scott and I think he's going to do some damage for Rich Rod. Who wouldn't want a senior QB with experience and the tools to run a specialized offense? Rich Rod and Scott, by themselves, are enough to pull out two wins that might not otherwise be there."
I went on to predict that Arizona would finish 4th in the P12 South, which is exactly where they finished.
The big news for Arizona coming into the 2011 campaign was the arrival of Rich Rodriguez which ushered in a significant change to the 'Zona football philosophy which, under Mike Stoops and his predecessors, had become associated with high flying, pass oriented spread offenses that featured their QBs making use of short routes, bubble screens and swing passes to get playmakers the ball in space. Those schemes had made stat-stuffing stars out of guys like Willie Tuitama and Nick Foles while making Arizona consistently one of the highest performing offenses in the P12.
The arrival of of RichRod coincided with the expiration of eligibility of key offensive pieces like Foles and RB Keola Atolin. While there were still great pieces left to work with, the timing was perfect for RichRod to implement his new style of offense in Tuscon. His mixed track record - off the charts at West Virginia, but mixed at Michigan - made it difficult to project exactly how the transition would progress and whether or not the players he inherited - guys like WR Austin Hill, RB Ka'Deem Carey and QB Matt Scott - would pick it up. In hindsight, the conclusion to those questions is inconclusive.
There were moments of brilliance. A 59-38 home field shellacking of Oklahoma State in Week 2 was an unmistakable statement game. Huge wins over South Carolina St and a certain Seattle-based university provided further evidence of the potential of the program. Even the narrow OT loss to Stanford, a game in which Arizona moved the ball at will against a stingy Stanford D, was an impressive showing for RichRod and crew. But, for every huge victory, there was an offsetting and equal red-flag type of moment. Game 1 was a clear struggle against a disadvantaged Toledo crew. A 66-10 ass-whipping at the hands of UCLA in the Rose Bowl is almost incomprehensible. The 49-0 loss to the Ducks was domination of the purest form. Even the end-of-season loss to rival Arizona State provided evidence of UA's propensity towards inconsistency.
It wasn't until the very last game of the season, however, that the pure schizophrenia of Wildcats came into full view. The New Mexico Bowl - the ultimate destination for inconsistent P12 teams - was the scene. The opponent was the always dangerous University of Nevada (just ask Rick Neuheisel). The Wildcats gave up 21 points in the first quarter, stormed back to score 21 points of their own in the 2nd quarter, but then got shut out 14-0 in the third quarter. By the start of the fourth, the Wildcats were down 45-28. True to form, the Cats stormed back and, thanks to a recovered onside kick, were able to score twice in the last 46 seconds of regulation to squeeze out a miraculous 49-48 victory in a game that is truly one for the ages.
The Jeckyll and Hyde act of 2012 would see the 'Cats finish 8-5, but just 4-5 in the P12. The offense had plenty of highlights. Ka'Deem Carey, in something of an upset, beat out Kenjon Barner of Oregon for the P12 rushing title with 1900+ yards and 23 TDs rushing. Sr QB Matt Scott led the P12 in passing with 300 yards per game, and 27 TDs against a somewhat surprising 14 INTs. JR WR Austin Hill was second in receiving and one of just four P12 receivers to reach 1000 yards. As a unit, the Arizona offense trailed only Oregon in total TDs scored and was the only P12 offense to finish in the top 3 in both Rushing and Passing Offense. Still, that offense couldn't compensate for the dumpster fire on the defensive side of the ball - a unit that gave up over 35 points a game (better than only Colorado) and one that actually gave up more yards per game (499 yds) than all other P12 teams including Colorado. The spectacular ascents and disastrous collapses of this team game in and game out were the net result and set up a lot of questions for the 'Cats going into 2013.
UW @ Arizona - a Recap:
The Huskies marched into Tuscon in October last year not feeling very good about themselves. Another blowout at the hands of the Ducks and a disappointing team effort at home vs USC had put UW on a two game losing streak and cemented the notion that the Huskies offense wasn't going to be very good for the remainder of the season. Still the Huskies were optimistic about the Arizona game as the Wildcats were coming off a three game losing streak and the line of thinking was that the beleaguered Husky Offensive Line would be more competitive against the flimsy Arizona front than it was against the elite units of the Ducks and Trojans.
This hope proved to be fantasy.
The Huskies offense made the 'Cats defense compare favorably to the '85 Chicago Bears. The 'Cats dominated the Husky front and harassed Keith Price to the tune of four sacks and a 56% completion rate. While the Huskies were able to move the ball in spurts, the pressure ultimately forced three turnovers - including two Price INTs - and set up the 'Cats offense with short fields. The RichRod offense, which was making the Oregon Offense look slow by comparison, went unchallenged by Justin Wilcox's D and racked up an easy 533 yards en route to an easy 52-17 victory.
As this was the first "winnable" game following the completion of a ridiculous early season gauntlet the Huskies had already run, the loss was a true barometer moment for the Dawgs. They were forced to come to grips with the fact that their offense was, in fact, truly destined to be a ghost of what it was in 2011. In addition, the game also proved that the improvements the Husky D had shown to date did not extend to run oriented spread teams - a flaw which would continue to get exploited throughout the season. No matter what you thought of the Apple Cup, this was a true pivot point for the Huskies under Steve Sarkisian and any heat that Sark feels in his seat this season will ultimately be traced back to this game.
The 'Cats enter 2013 with a lot of hope that they can sustain momentum on offense while continuing the development and improvement of their offense. However, the loss to graduation of Matt Scott, the loss to injury of Austin Hill, and the ongoing off field struggles of Ka'Deem Carey represent true barriers for RichRod to overcome.
The good news is that the returning players all know what to expect from the playbook in year 2 of the new regime. The QB position is the key question that must be answered. The incumbent, Sr. BJ Denker, is the self-proclaimed "smartest player on the field" (yes, he said this during the spring) and the favorite to win the job. The competition is coming from one-time Sark target and USC transfer Jesse Scroggins and incoming freshman Anu Solomon. Solomon is an intriguing piece and one that will, no doubt, become a key factor for the Wildcats in the years to come. Carey returns to the fold to carry on with a Heisman campaign. If he falters - either on the field or off of it - So Jared Baker appears poised to make a move up the depth chart. The receiving corps has a tall order to recover from the loss of Austin Hill and the expiration of eligibility for Dan Buckner (773 yards, 5 TDs). There is a lot of talent, but not much production among the returning players. The leading returning receiver is David Richards (298 yds, 3 TDs) and he'll be supported by incoming ND transfer Davonte Neal,
Jr. Tyler Slavin (whoops, since I drafted this, Slavin has been dismissed from the team) and the rising Clive Georges, among others.
Defensively, the Wildcats return all of their starters from a year ago. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on what kind of philosophy you subscribe to. On one hand, there is no substitute for experience - even if it involves a series of bitch-slaps and beat-downs. On the flip side, one could question whether or not the talent was ever really there and whether or not the talent that is there is too damaged - physically and emotionally - to really rise back up again. The good news is that this will be the second year of RichRod's 3-3-5 scheme and the learning curve shouldn't be as great. Their best player may be LB Marquis Flowers who led the team in both sacks (5.5) and interceptions (3). He is complimented in the secondary by CB Shaq Richardson - a big-time talent that has started for Arizona since he arrived on campus. The heart of Jeff Casteel's defense, though, is LB Jake Fischer. Fischer averaged 9 tackles a game in the middle of the 'Zona D. A Cort Dennison sort of player, Fischer is the clear leader of a young group of players that expects to move towards the middle of the Pac 12 pack in 2013.
- Arizona recorded just 16 sacks all season which implies that the 4 sacks that they recorded against the Huskies on October 12 represented 25% of the sack total for the entire season.
- Ka'Deem Carey's off-season troubles have been well documented but took a turn for the better when his domestic assault charges were dropped. Carey, who had allegedly beaten his pregnant girlfriend after getting angry about not being able to find a lighting utensil to help in the consumption of "illegal substances" benefited when the prosecution was unable to produce a key witness in the case.
- The son of Seattle Mariners icon, Ken Griffey, Jr., is a Wildcat. WR Trey Griffey is a redshirt freshman who is expected to see rotational time this season.
- Arizona, which joined the Pac 8-10-12 in 1978, is the Seattle Mariners of the league - it has never been to a Rose Bowl.
- When former OL Coach, Robert Anae, returned to BYU, it created an opening for RichRod that came just as the entire coaching staff at Cal was being replaced. Enter a name that strikes a familiar chord with many Husky fans. Jim Michalczik, briefly the UW OC when Sark was first hired, was immediately snapped up and put to work on improving the Wildcat O-Line.
- Despite having three prospects in Matt Scott, Dan Buckner and Taimi Tutogi who were all considered "draftable", no Wildcats got drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft. All three did end up getting tryouts with Scott showing the most potential to stick with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- The name Adam Hall may ring a bell for many of you. A Parade All-American out of Palo Verde, Hall was once an uber talented DB for the Wildcats who looked to be on the verge of P12 All-Conference before tearing his ACL in spring 2011. Hall then tore his ACL again in the spring of 2012, had a falling out with Rich Rod and has left the team with a degree and a year of eligibility remaining. No word on where he'll end up, but an interesting tidbit on a talented player.
- The Wildcats pulled a UW and hosted a MASH unit during their spring practices. Their injury list included Hill, Richardson, DT Dan Pettinato, LB Flowers, and CB Jonathon McNight - all starters and key contributors in 2012.
- Arizona rolled out some new uniforms last year. Will they be rolling out new helmets this year? The concept below has been marketed to the public by BadAss Masks, but it isn't clear if these helmets will actually get into games.
2013 Predictions: Arizona
The P12 South is a tough division to call in 2013. Arizona is one of four teams that each have the capability to take enough conference games and to pull out a Southern division championship. Thus, the exercise of forecasting the South is as much about assessing who has the most questions as opposed to the answers to each of those questions.
To me, Arizona is that team - the one with the most questions, that is. On one hand, there are some clear strengths that one can bank on. RichRod has shown that he can move the ball. Ka'Deem Carey - if his head is on right - is a Heisman capable player. The receiver ranks are deep, if unproven. The odds are decent that the offense will be a top 3 affair in the Pac 12.
Beyond that, things get more murky. Outside of Colorado, no team in the South has more questions about who will ultimately man the QB position. The loss of Austin Hill to injury is a crushing blow. The prospects for the defense are cloudy to say the least. The schedule isn't a killer, but it doesn't help them out too much despite having three cream-puff non-conference games (N. Arizona, @UNLV, UTSA) as they pull five conference road games this season and have to burn one of their home games against Oregon in the second to last week of the season. If there were any good news it is that the 'Cats miss both Stanford and Oregon State this year.
In the end, the Wildcats could end up going anywhere between 1st and 4th in the South. They have the talent and a few breaks in the schedule that will make the journey navigable. But, no team among the true contenders of the South have more questions that need to get answered than Arizona, which makes them the toughest team to call in 2013.