TUCSON AZ - DECEMBER 02: Runningback Keola Antolin #2 of the Arizona Wildcats rushes the football for 8 yards past Jamaar Jarrett #92 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first quarter of the college football game at Arizona Stadium on December 2 2010 in Tucson Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
College football website College Football Zealots recently reached out to Arizona Desert Swarm to provide a local look at the Arizona Wildcats' upcoming 2011 football season. Sure, were a couple months from getting into the grind of the football season, but it's never too early to ask questions, evaluate the team from last year and pinpoint what can make the next year a successful one.
For the Wildcats, many questions loom after an offseason of wacky coaching changes, the loss of pretty much the entire offensive line and a number of offseason injuries. Take a look at six big questions and my blogger-perspective attempt to answer them after the jump.
College Football Zealots: Mike Stoops is going into his eighth year as Head Coach. He has taken the Wildcats to a bowl and posted a winning record for the last three years. From a coaching standpoint what do you think he needs to improve to get this team to the next level?
Arizona Desert Swarm: Not just preparation but consistent preparation at that. Through the first half of last season, the Wildcats were stomping out mediocre football teams pretty easily and jumped into the Top 10 after a 7-1 start. It was a fresh thing to see after the program had struggled by playing down to its competition in Stoops' previous years. But then came the brutal back-end of the schedule that made the Wildcats look silly. They dropped the last five games of 2010, ending the season with a 36-10 beatdown at the hands of Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Did the early success get to their heads? I don't know. But even at the Alamo Bowl, it wasn't a complete lack of talent that made the performance become the second embarrassing bowl appearance in a row -- it was unpreparedness.
Oh, and Stoops could probably learn to keep his cool during games. As much as you might say that football players need to get used to being yelled at, it doesn't help when a coach does so frequently that it begins to go in one ear and out the other. If he learns to have more poise, that will also help him make better decisions in close games.
CFZ: Arizona has had some significant injuries this off-season. What are the ones that will have the biggest impact on the team and what is the status of those players?
AZDS: All four of the big injuries were players within the rotations and all were torn ACLs. Back-up runningback Greg Nwoko, safety Adam Hall, linebacker Jake Fischer and defensive tackle Willie Mobley will all be out for a long while, most likely through the first few games. The biggest losses come on defense; Hall showed signs of being Arizona's only true play-maker in a defense that was solid but nothing special. He's an athletic freak and a player who can deliver a game-defining hit. Fischer's loss is big considering the linebacker corps are thin as is and Nwoko is the only one of the three backs expected to see time that is big enough for a goal line package.
CFZ: Arizona was in the middle of the pack in scoring last year in the Pac-10 but they have a lot of good returnees on the offensive side of the football (Foles, Criner, Antolin). Who needs to step up their game on offense to really make Arizona a legit Pac-12 Championship contender?
AZDS: Honestly, this is a combination of things. The receiving crew is deep and talented with Criner (a probable All-American and high NFL pick) leading the way, and Antolin will be solid should he remain healthy. But I think the biggest question mark is Foles, who as much hype as he's gotten, hasn't played well enough as he should considering the talent around him. The high number of three-and-outs last year might hint toward the coaching staff's distrust with the run game, but when Foles threw the ball, he either didn't make reads fast enough or didn't have the confidence to make plays downfield.
In addition, the offensive line is in complete rebuild mode after that whole graduation thing happened with a cohesive, veteran crew. Their growth in the offseason might be what makes or breaks Arizona's offense.
CFZ: Who are some newcomers (Freshman, RS Frosh, JUCO) that you think can come in and make an impact for the Wildcats this year?
AZDS: Though it's unlikely that any true freshmen will make a huge impact or crack a starting spot, there's a number of new faces for the Wildcats that could key their success in 2011. The most interesting is punter Kyle Dugandzic out of Ventura Community College, who apparently has a big leg -- he backed that up by booting a 70-plus yard punt in his only attempt during Arizona's spring game.
Also on the special teams from is redshirt freshman Garic Wharton, a small but blazing fast return man. He probably has a lock on the job for his ridiculous speed alone (he was one of the best sprinters in the nation at his Nevada high school). Wharton could also see time at an inside receiver position. And going back to the offensive line, redshirt freshmen Trent Spurgeon and Mickey Baucus are two youngsters that will be counted upon to protect Foles.
CFZ: Looking at the schedule, what are the most important games this year (and why)?
AZDS: After the gimme opener against Northern Arizona, the Wildcats face a daunting five-game stretch. The Pac-12 schedule will pit Arizona against arguably the four strongest programs from the old Pac-10. They play Stanford, Oregon, USC and Oregon State in a row, all without a bye week. If they play like they did toward the end of last season, they have no chance of gaining momentum until mid-October. But the biggest game is before that -- Arizona heads to Stillwater, Okla. on Sept. 8 to face the same Cowboys team that smacked them in the Alamo Bowl last year. If they don't at the very least make that game competitive, then they have no chance at finding the confidence that last year's tough last stretch stripped them of.
CFZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
AZDS: Because of the way the Wildcats ended last season and because five of their first six games are against teams that beat them last year (not to mention that they're all Top 25 potential squads), I see this team finishing with a mediocre 7-5 record. I think the Wildcats have too much rebuilding to do on the offensive line and too much coaching turnover from the past few years to take a major step forward. The offensive line coming together will make the offense able to stay with anyone, but that will be tough to do until Arizona has already lost a few games.
As for it being a successful season, Arizona must simply make a decent bowl game and then win it. That will keep Stoops' job safe and make next year a potentially very good season. Perhaps then the Wildcats will finally have some stability to make a run at the Pac-12 title. For next year's sake, it's imperative for this season to be a seven- or eight-win year.
What do you think should be considered a successful season for the Arizona football team?