A random, too-soon look at Arizona's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Expectations, mainly. Arizona was a punching bag for almost all of a decade of losing seasons, through the disappointing slide at the end of the Dick Tomey era following a 12-1 "breakthrough" in 1998 and an outright mutiny against his successor, John Mackovic, in 2003. Mike Stoops inherited all that baggage, and the accompanying talent drought, and after four straight seasons without a bowl game, the same malaise threatened to do him in last year, too.
There's no chance of that now, not after Stoops put an end to the bowl drought and inked a lucrative extension in one fell swoop. Not everyone in Tucson is happy with the raise in light of the ubiquitous budget problems there and everywhere else, but (as I pointed out after the Las Vegas Bowl win over BYU) given the numbers, it was inevitable:
The Wildcats have been on a steady, demonstrable climb under Stoops, and last year was a giant step up in more than just the record: UA waxed UCLA, Cal, Arizona State and BYU by double-digits, played Southern Cal closer than any other team in the Pac-10 except Oregon State and led the streaking Beavers in Corvallis with a little over a minute to play in an eventual loss in November. Based on that resumé, 'Zona could have been a 10-game winner and finished in the top-15. Had it shored up baffling lapses against obviously inferior outfits like New Mexico and Stanford -- against whom the Wildcats are 0-4 the last two years, by a combined 12 points -- this team would have had everyone's attention. With those embarrassments, UA didn't receive a single top-25 vote from the AP or Coaches' polls in January, and the jury is still out on the Wildcats' trajectory in the immediate future.
The further up the ladder you go, though, the less room there is for advancement, and 2009 will be a crucial season in determining whether last year was the culmination of a solid crop of veterans -- four-year starting quarterback Willie Tuitama, record-breaking receiver Mike Thomas, second-round pick Eben Britton and three of the four leading tacklers from '08 are gone -- or whether Stoops has a sustainable program that's going to continue building a bridge to the Pac-10's upper crust.
What's the Same. Stoops comes from a defensive background, but you get the feeling he's always longed for a traditionally "smashmouth" offense built on a strong running game and efficient passing. See the way Arizona pushed the issue during his first three years: The Wildcats ran a majority of the time on offense from 2004-06 despite being forced to play catch up a majority of the time (UA was 12-22 in those years) and despite being genuinely terrible at running. The 'Cats finished 93rd, 88th and 110th in rushing, respectively, and collectively only averaged 3.5 yards per carry; the '06 team was held to a pathetic 2.2 per carry in Pac-10 games and at one point finished with negative yardage on the ground in three straight games.
Off that debacle, Stoops booted offensive coordinator Mike Canales and lured Spike Dykes from Mike Leach's staff at Texas Tech to spread the field and install Leach's pass-happy Air Raid in 2007; pass attempts leapt from a little under 30 a game to more than 44, and Tuitama finished second in the Pac-10 in passing yards and efficiency. Meanwhile, the running game languished, finishing dead last in the conference and 114th nationally, even as scoring increased by almost two touchdowns per game. It's a little unusual, then, that with Tuitama and Thomas both back for their senior runs last year, the Wildcats became an overwhelmingly run-oriented team again: Suddenly, from rock bottom, they were back to running 55 percent of the time and improved to the middle of the pack, statistically, which played no small role in the 'Cats first bowl appearance in 10 years.
Some of that reversion is circumstantial, thanks to leading more often and facing fewer must-pass scenarios from behind; some of it had to with a veteran offensive line led by two seniors and junior Eben Britton, an all-conference mauler at left tackle who left a year early for the draft. Most obviously, it was the emergence of sophomore Nicholas Grigsby, the nation's quietest 1,100-yard rusher, and freshman Keola Antolin, who debuted with over 500 yards. Together, they're by far the most productive pair Arizona has wielded in a decade.
Of course, to a large extent, it's also a result of running up gaudy stats against pathetic defenses like Idaho (265 yards), Washington (256 yards) and Washington State (317 yards), which can have a certain distorting effect on the whole; as a team, 'Zona was held under the competence-baseline of four yards per carry in five of the last six. Still, with Tuitama and Thomas gone and a very green, probably far more scrambly quarterback moving into the lineup (see below), it's a good bet Dykes will try to hang the offense's hat primarily on Grigsby and Antolin again, as long as it's tenable.
They're there, if you can get it to them. It wouldn't be accurate at all, though, to paint the running backs as the only playmakers on the offense; the speculation about any increase in their role is based on the changing of the guard at quarterback, certainly not any lack of talent at receiver. Even minus Thomas, the Pac-10's career receptions leader, the Wildcats bring back more than 140 catches, 1,800-plus yards and 15 touchdowns in Delashaun Dean, Terrell Turner and Rob Gronkowski, who has 16 touchdowns in two years and should rank as one of the top three or four receiving tight ends in the country. Add little brother Chris Gronkowski, who somehow averaged 25 yards and scored three touchdowns on just eight catches as a fullback, and there is definitely no shortage of players to get the ball to.
In fact, if Thomas is going to be missed, it might be more on special teams than on offense: He brought two kicks back for touchdowns last year and was voted the top punt returner in the league.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. The duel to replace Tuitama in April was a classic "runner vs. passer" narrative between athletic Matt Scott and towering, 240-pound Michigan State transfer Nick Foles, neither of whom particularly distinguished himself. Foles is more Tuitama-ish -- big, and almost entirely pocket-bound -- but if his recruiting hype is any indication, Scott must be considered the favorite, having snubbed offers from Cal, Michigan and Oregon and foregone a redshirt last year to back up Tuitama as a true freshman. Scott may not have Foles or Tuitama's arm, but his alleged running ability brings a new dimension to the offense, and he was a four-star recruit for a reason -- it's probably no coincidence that the school's official post-spring depth chart lists Scott No. 1 without the now-standard "or" qualifier. But nothing will be official about the position until well into the fall.
Best-Case. Aside from back-to-back trips to Iowa and Oregon State in September, the schedule is backloaded, so a split in the visits to Corvallis and Iowa City could leave 'Zona sitting at 7-1 going into a big Nov. 14 game in Berkeley. If the 'Cats take care of a string of winnable conference games in Tucson -- Stanford UCLA and Washington State come in back-to-back-to-back -- a win over Cal or Oregon the following week could set up actual stakes for the Dec. 5 visit to USC. Forget beating the Trojans in a game that matters, but just making that game matter, at that point in the season, would be a wild victory in itself. If Scott delivers at quarterback, this could be a 9-3, Holiday Bowl-esque team.
Worst-Case. After going to Iowa and Oregon State, the 'Cats also have to go to Seattle, where who knows what will be awaiting them in Steve Sarkisian's first season at Washington. That's a trap game, and an 0-3 road trip could mean disaster on a slate without much margin for error. A stumble at home against Stanford or UCLA in October could set the stage for a nightmarish finale that leaves 'Zona writhing in the neighborhood of 4-8, and the school suddenly rethinking Stoops' contract extension.
Non-Binding Forecast. As always in the Pac-10, the key will be taking the toss-up games against fellow middle-dwellers. I would count Oregon and USC as losses, but that's all -- if the Wildcats can avoid the headscratching loss (Central Michigan in the opener is potentially dangerous) and split the dates with Iowa, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Cal and Arizona State, another 7-5 effort would be a solid encore and a validation that this long-suffering bunch has actually turned a corner.