We’re just over a month a way from seeing the Arizona Wildcats take the field for the start of the 2016 season. 2016 will mark the fifth year of the Rich Rodriguez era and Rodriguez has an entirely new defensive staff, giving us a lot to look forward to coming off a disappointing 7-6 season.
Arizona was selected to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South, which is something I see being extremely realistic.
Opening up with the BYU Cougars gives this season a little more excitement, but in the coming months, the Wildcats will face one of the more brutal conference schedules in the country. Without knowing much about the defense (besides the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of Pac-12-caliber talent) or the question marks that surround the group of receivers and quarterback play, I project Arizona will have a 7-5 record in 2016.
Here’s how I rank the Wildcats’ toughest games of the season.
12. Grambling State Tigers
The one thing I’m looking forward to for this game is seeing former Arizona commit Darrell Clark. The former 3-star recruit never ended up making it to campus and eventually made his way over to Grambling State as a mid-year enrollee this spring. He had a productive spring and I’ll be interested to see if he makes it onto the field. For Arizona’s sake, one would hope this game turns into something similar to the NAU game last season — a lop-sided blowout.
11. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
I don’t know a whole lot about Hawaii, but I do know it opened last season with a win against a pretty competitive Colorado team — the same Colorado team that pushed Arizona to the limits before Anu Solomon was pulled.
The Rainbow Warriors have a hectic non-conference schedule, as they travel to Australia to play Cal, then to Michigan to play in the Big House, then go back to Hawaii to host Tennessee-Martin before ultimately heading to the desert to face Arizona. That sounds fun.
I would expect Hawaii to take a beating in the month of September.
10. Oregon State Beavers
I’m really curious to find out how Oregon State is this year.
The Beavers had no sense of direction last year and nearly everything that could’ve gone wrong, did. Utah State transfer Darell Garretson, who has impressed this summer, looks like he’ll be the Beavers’ starting quarterback.
It might not happen this year, but give Gary Andersen some time and then I think the Beavers can be a solid six-win program in the near future.
9. Colorado Buffaloes
Colorado was competitive last season and it seems to be on the verge of becoming more than that. Certainly, the Buffaloes are capable of pulling off an upset, but they just always fall short. I’m interested to see how they play this season, especially without Nelson Spruce, who was a large majority of their offense. I feel like Sefo Liufau is very similar to Anu Solomon in the fact that they seem to have that potential to be an upper half quarterback in the Pac-12, but just can’t break through.
8. Arizona State Sun Devils
I know it’s a rivalry game and it can be a toss up, but Arizona State should be terrible this season. At least with Arizona, there’s some potential on defense to look forward to, and you would think the offense can manage itself, giving the Wildcats an easy path to at least six wins.
But ASU is in the midst of a quarterback battle between four extremely talented prospects out of high school — all of which were four-star recruits at one point — and none of them seem close to being ready. Combine that with the fact that the Sun Devils have to replace four offensive linemen and it’s easy to see why they’re expected to struggle this season. Not to mention that Todd’s Graham’s risk-reward defense can either make or break a game for the Devils.
7. BYU Cougars
I feel like BYU is too low on this list, but that’s just kind of where it falls. The Cougars have a lot of question marks themselves, but starting the season off with this game could definitely set the tone for their season.
This seems to be Arizona’s most legitimate non-conference opponent since year one under Rich Rodriguez when he took down Oklahoma State. I’ve heard BYU is not supposed to be very good, and not likely to make a bowl game, especially with its tough schedule. Still, this is an extremely dangerous game that was supposed to be a road game originally, but the BYU fan base in Phoenix/Mesa will still make it feel that way.
6. Utah Utes
Utah is a tough team to read. It could either be fifth on this list or maybe even ninth, we don’t know. I just find it hard to believe that an offense as rough as last season will be able to hold its own without Travis Wilson and Devontae Booker. The Utes’ defense will keep them in many games, probably only allowing around 24 points a game.
5. Washington State Cougars
This is going to be a big game for Arizona that I think could go either way. I think you could expect another game similar to 2015. If the Cats could have had at least one stop, giving Luke Falk anything less than 514 passing yards and six touchdown passes, Arizona wins that game.
4. USC Trojans
USC’s record this season will not necessarily be indicative of how good of a team it is. The Trojans have the toughest schedule in the nation hands down, as they open the season against the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
We’ll see what Clay Helton can do in his first full year with a boat load of talent on both sides of the ball.
Arizona has played the Trojans tough in each of the last four years, so I’d at least expect this to be a close game.
3. Washington Huskies
I don’t think Washington is going to be all that it is being hyped up to be, which is a top-13 team in the FPI and projected as the favorite in every game it plays this season. Still, I think the Huskies can easily win nine games.
I’m putting this game third, because this is a huge Pac-12 opener and Arizona is going to have learn a lot about itself in non-conference before it faces the Huskies.
Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin will be a nice duo for their offense, but I’m not entirely sold on Browning. Regardless, it’s the Husky defense, particularly their secondary, that will give offensive coordinators migraines. Bruce Feldman has that bunch ranked second in the nation, behind LSU and ahead of Alabama.
2. UCLA Bruins
This was pretty close with USC, even though I have the Trojans sitting fourth. I think USC has a lot more talent, but Clay Helton as USC’s coach makes things a little iffy. What led to UCLA being second on this list is the fact that Rich Rodriguez is 0-4 against the Bruins. Being on the road for the first time as a young team, as it’ll be when the Wildcats head to Pasadena, won’t do Arizona many favors either.
Josh Rosen is that guy who could also shred the defense apart. Depending on how BYU plays out, the secondary probably won’t be tested all that much heading into this matchup.
1. Stanford Cardinal
We don’t know much about the defense, but chances are the man who should have been crowned as the 2015 Heisman winner, Christian McCaffrey, is going to shred up every defense he faces this upcoming season. The Cardinal have to replace Kevin Hogan and three offensive linemen, which I think will hold McCaffrey back just a tad.
Plus, Stanford had to replace a whole lot of talent in its front seven.
Luckily Arizona gets Stanford coming off its bye week, which gives Marcel Yates another week to prepare for McCaffrey and company.