Coming into the season, there were a lot of question marks for the Arizona Wildcats. Who would play quarterback? Who would replace Ka'Deem Carey? Would the defense continue its trend upwards?
One area that didn't have a lot of question marks was the offensive line.
The Arizona offensive line is one of the most experienced groups in the country, now combining for a total of 164 starts heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game. And those three seniors of Mickey Baucus, Steven Gurrola, and Fabbians Ebbele now get the chance to go out on top.
"It's incredible," Baucus said after the ASU game. "From what we've come from this season has just been incredible. It's the only word to describe it."
Baucus was the one who took the Territorial Cup off the field and into the Arizona locker room.
"It's a dream come true," he said of that moment. "When I committed here five years ago, I thought we could build something and get to this level, and we have. And now we've got a shot to win the Pac-12. It's just incredible."
"I'm just really happy for them," freshman Jacob Alsadek said of sending the seniors out like this. "I know that a lot of them have never, like Steven's never beaten ASU, so I think it's really cool to send the seniors off with such a good season and we've just been blessed with how things have turned out. We put things into our own hands, and we won out, and UCLA did what happened to them."
Arizona won the Pac-12 South thanks to a UCLA loss to Stanford that occurred while the Wildcats were finishing up the ASU game. And apparently Baucus was one of the first people on the team to hear that UCLA had lost.
"A little birdie told me," he joked.
"Mickey came up to me and told me 'We're champions, we're champions," Gurrola said on Saturday. "I didn't believe him but then I heard it over the speakers and I was like 'alright, alright'."
"I found out with about five minutes left," Baucus explained about knowing the UCLA score. "My life got a whole lot more stressful for the last five minutes. I could barely watch. I was a nervous wreck. I was sitting there with my head down. Steven had a towel over his head. It was brutal to watch but (the defense) got the stop."
The Arizona offensive line has shown the experience throughout the year by being one of the most consistent groups on the team, and showing the ability to adjust to some of the best defensive linemen in the country.
"There have been moments where we've played some really good people and they've held their own," coach Rodriguez said on Sunday. "I think probably not talked about in our league is the strength of the front-sevens in our league is a lot better than probably it's ever been, and I think you'll see that over the next several years in the NFL Drafts and on NFL rosters. So our guys have held their own, and obviously the experience has helped."
"We've got three, four guys up-front that have played a lot of football," Rodriguez continued.
Where does that experience help the most? Adjusting to new looks from opposing defenses quickly.
"We're getting new looks, and I'm sure we're going to get different looks Friday," coach added. "They may see something different for a series or two, but they adjust pretty quickly."
"I think the intelligence and experience of our guys has shown up pretty well."
"It shows the young guys like Cayman (Bundage) and Lene (Maiava) and Jacob (Alsadek) the maturtiy and feed the maturity off of that," quarterback Anu Solomon added.
After Arizona's 17-7 loss to UCLA several weeks ago, I talked with Alsadek, who is the only guy playing who hadn't started at the college level before this season, and one thing he focused on was the lack of communication. Since then, those communication issues have been fixed.
"I remember talking about how the communication was obviously a problem," Alsadek said on Monday. "And I think now we're talking more, and there's a better connection between all of us. I just like the way things have been working out. Obviously we've been winning so things have been going well. But I just think together we've gotten a little closer after that loss, cuz we weren't really talking at all, and I think that now we have a better understanding. Or at least I do. I have a better understanding of what the whole picture and not just what I have to do, and I think that helps a lot."
Even with the strong defensive fronts that Arizona has had to play each of the last three weeks, the offensive line's improvement shows up in the film room.
"You can see that we all know what we're doing, which is a huge part of it," Alsadek continued. "I don't really know how to explain it, but it just works. You can tell that we're getting more movement, that we know where we're going. We're not locking into things."
"I'm really proud of the way everyone's been playing and the way we've been communicating and working together. Especially as an offensive line, you all have to work together. So if one person's not doing something right, it doesn't work out. The play's a bust."
"I still haven't had to me a good game," Alsadek added. "But I'm really hard on myself."
With freshman at major positions like Alsadek, Solomon, and Nick Wilson plus a lot of sophomores at receiver, the future looks bright, even though the present is pretty good as well.
"We obviously have a lot of potential," continued Alsadek. "But like Coach Rod says, you never want to be comfortable, so at least for me I'm not comfortable. I still have to prove myself to the coaches. I'm still not where I want to be personally, and I know that (Solomon and Wilson), they're not where they want to be personally either. So we have to come in and work. We just have to work. We can't just be like 'We had one good season, we're good, we don't have to worry about it'. It doesn't work like that. You can fluctuate as a player, and we just have to keep going up."
"This can't be the end of it."