Over the next 12 weekends, “All Coug’d Up” is going to bring you our Pac 12 Previews, one team at a time. This weekend it is all about the boys from Tucson, the Arizona Wildcats.
Team Overview: The Wildcats are coming off a rocky 2011 campaign in which their coach was fired before it was over, after an incredibly difficult first half schedule that was supposed to define if the Cats were BCS ready, left the highly anticipated season in ruins. An unfair move perhaps considering the navigation of Okie St, Stanford, Oregon and USC in successive weeks early, but a bad loss to rarely competitive Oregon State team and then another loss to a Washington team that they were supposed to beat sealed the fate of Mike Stoops.
The schedule will be much more manageable for the Cats in 2012 as Toledo, Oklahoma State (which has lost a ton of talent from the top 10 team from 2011), and SC State will all visit Tucson before conference play. On top of that 5 of Arizona’s 9 conference games will be played at Arizona Stadium, which means an amazing 8 of 12 football games will be home contests. This should offset some of the talent disparity between the Wildcats and the upper echelon of the Pac-12 and means a bowl berth is in the cards, at least in theory.
The Good: The answer to a lot of questions in Tucson came emphatically in the form of Rich Rodriguez, who has been welcomed with open arms and has created a serious buzz around the campus and Tucson community. A highly sought after coach until Michigan snagged him (after which he was thought to be untouchable due to Michigan ties but never got over the talent upgrade in the Big Ten), Rodriguez has a pension for taking the average team, particularly offensively and making them true-blue contenders. West Virginia was a similar team to the Wildcats in many ways when he took them over in 2001, but I’m not sure that the Mountaineers had the raw talent of this Arizona team to begin his tenure. Beginning with Matt Scott, the dual threat, collected qb that got some nice playing time and played well in 2010 before redshirting last season behind the over-hyped Nick Foles, the Cats are potentially explosive on offense. Bruising tailbacks Ka’Deem Carey (425 yards, 6 tds in 2011) and Taimi Tutogi (great feet and listed at 250 lbs) will wear down defenses as they get plenty of looks in the Rich Rod offense, which uses the qb and both runners similarly to Oregon.
There is a wrench in the Scott plan, however, as ultra athletic receiver Richard Morrison has been moved over to challenge Matt and is aiming to beat him out. Behind a run-heavy spread attack like Rodriguez employs, a guy like Morrison could thrive if his decision making is adequate. The problem I see here is that Scott has 4 inches and several pounds on Morrison, and Denard Robinson at Michigan already showed us that the qb position under Rodriguez takes a beating. I don’t see Scott getting beat out here, particularly because of his size, but also he has good feet and a year of experience.
The loss of playmakers Jeron Criner and David Roberts means that a new go-to guy will have to be found on the outside, but Arizona has seemingly always had an explosive, big target to throw to and Senior Dan Buckner is the newest of these. At 6’4, 214 Buckner caught 42 balls last season with 606 yards and 2 tds, while having a 10 catch effort for 142 at Oklahoma State. He is expected to challenge for 1st team Pac-12. Sophomore receiver Austin Hill is another big target for either Scott or Morrison, listed at 6’3, 211. As you can see, there is precedent for optimism if you’re an Arizona fan.
The Bad: The problem for Arizona was one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12 constantly put UA behind the eight-ball last season and quite honestly for most of the seasons of the Stoops era, including giving up a horribly disturbing 48 points last season to the waffle that was Colorado. There are always potential playmakers on any team and Junior safety Adam Hall and fellow Junior DE Tyler Ermisch could fit that bill. But offenses in the Pac-12 are very good at nullifying anything less than 3-4 quality playmakers on the other side, so Arizona will need a breakout year from a couple of unexpected sources just to stay competitive. There’s not always hope on the other side, and we all saw how Rich Rod’s Michigan defense responded to his offensive coaching style, so this could be another long season in Tuscon.
Silver Linings: (1) Recruiting should get a major boost from Rich Rodriguez’ arrival, particularly on defense. For a couple years after the Stoops hire, Arizona actually had some very good talent commit to it. The problem was that you never knew what the identity was for the defense particularly, so I think big time recruits shied away over the past 2-3 seasons. It is apparent that the defense is nowhere near as talented as it was a few seasons ago, especially on the edges.
(2) Due to the offensive players in place, Arizona is well set up for the Rich Rod offense, which means that they can wear defenses down and stay on the field. Do that and they will stay in games longer because their inadequate defense won’t get to be exposed. Time of possession is a key for the Wildcats in 2012
(3) And lastly, I think the boosters will finally get involved at Arizona and back Arizona football. The University has always been a basketball first institution, but we’ve seen schools like that before that end up thriving in football because the fans get behind a coach and a developing team. It doesn’t always last, but we’ve seen it. Tucson is simply void of facilities and my belief in booster support stems from the Rodriguez effect at WVU. Just look at what’s happened since Rodriguez started coaching there in 2001: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountaineer_Field_at_Milan_Puskar_Stadium
As you can see, West Virginia experienced a serious change in attitude from its boosters and a run of the mill program is now in elite status with their facilities and ultimately the team can contend nationally. The “Rich Rod effect” will be back in Tucson, you can count on it. It won’t be long before the Wildcats start experiencing some real activity in the football program, which is good for the Pac-12.
Next week we will move over to Tempe and give you a look at the Arizona State Sun Devils as we continue on our weekly Pac-12 Preview here at “ACU”.