We’re just a few weeks away from kickoff and the hot topic right now seems to be the win/loss total for the Arizona Wildcats.
Despite the 3-9 season, it seems like folks generally seem optimistic about the season, and I can understand where they’re coming from.
The ceiling for this team, I believe, is a 7-5 season. And that’s given the fact that Arizona would likely be in contention for a New Mexico or Las Vegas Bowl bid after six wins.
At the same time, I don’t think the floor is as low as last season. At minimum, I see this team winning four games.
The reason for slight sense of optimism is the fact that Arizona generally brings everyone back. Last year, the team didn’t have a lot of talent ready to go, and a lot of that was due to injuries and youth.
Arizona loses its top five linebackers from last season, but returns just about every key contributor on the defensive line and in the secondary, building off year two in the new defensive scheme.
On offense, you have year two for Brandon Dawkins, a more stable offensive line in place and three really strong running backs.
And from the sounds of this offseason, this team has made better strides than before.
So here I give a quick breakdown on each opponent for Arizona this season.
vs. NAU, Sept. 2
NAU shouldn’t be a problem in Tucson.
This is a good time to get out on top fast, and start rotating guys in to get them in-game experience with a win, especially considering the two dozen or so new players Rich Rodriguez wants to play.
Rodriguez will likely bring a smaller playbook in order to unload on Houston, and the Pac-12, in the following weeks.
vs. Houston, Sept. 9
Houston is the big wild card, and this is the game that could launch Arizona into either direction.
This series was announced back in 2013, and since then the Cougars have gone 38-15. But now they’ll be without head coach Tom Herman, who is now at Texas, and Greg Ward Jr., their three-year starting quarterback who did everything for them on offense.
Houston has a really strong defense anchored by the No. 6 recruit in the 2016 class, sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver.
The Cougars’ offense is a mystery, but their line returns and they have a lot of pass catchers. It just comes down to whether quarterback Kyle Allen can win the job and live up to his five-star hype from his Texas A&M days.
I have gone back and forth with myself, but I just don’t see Arizona coming out with the win in this one. A win against Houston would do wonders for this team’s morale, and for the future of this staff, but right now I just don’t think there is enough to say Arizona wins.
at UTEP, Sept. 15
This is a big game to see how Arizona responds after Houston. Regardless of the week two outcome, I can’t imagine Arizona losing UTEP. However, it could be a dangerously gross game similar to the UTSA trip in 2014.
Only thing here is that UTEP won’t have nearly as much talent and is a mild opponent that gives Arizona a quick trial run on the road. It allows the staff to regroup for Pac-12 play, and figure out who their main rotational guys are.
Coming out of non-conference with 2-1 record isn’t a cause for panic just yet.
vs. Utah, Sept. 22
Pac-12 play kicks off with Utah at home, a historically favorable matchup for Rodriguez. Overall, UA is 4-1 against Utah and 2-0 at home.
Utah lost a tremendous amount of talent to the NFL this past offseason, particularly on defense. Utah will likely be better later in the season than early because of this, which makes it seem like a winnable game.
So there’s a chance, and for now I’ll say that Arizona opens up conference play with a win at home. But I would not be surprised at all if Arizona drops this game.
at Colorado, Oct. 7
Arizona then has a bye week before taking on Colorado in Boulder. Traveling to Boulder could be tough, but like Utah, Colorado lost a ton of talent in the offseason.
This is an interesting year because we’ll really find out whether Colorado was a one-year wonder, like Arizona was in 2014, or if it’s here to sustain success.
This is a do-able game, but I don’t think Arizona comes out with this one on the road.
vs. UCLA, Oct. 14
Arizona will face UCLA in Tucson and I’m really curious to see how the Bruins come out and look like this season.
I honestly don’t know what to make of UCLA right now, especially since Jim Mora is widely considered to be on the hottest seat in college football.
Playing at home certainly helps, but I figure UCLA comes in and takes this one.
at Cal, Oct. 21
This is certainly the most winnable Pac-12 game for Arizona.
I’ll be heading to the Bay Area myself for this game. Naturally, Arizona is 0-6 when I watch them outside of Arizona Stadium.
I think this will change to 1-6.
vs. Washington State, Oct. 28
Washington State has completely worked UA’s defense the past two seasons, scoring 114 points combined in those meetings. If Arizona’s offense can keep up with the Cougs this could be entertaining, but not necessarily close.
For as viable as I think Arizona’s defense will be this season, I think Washington State continues to drop 45+ points because there will likely be a three-man rush on every play and Luke Falk is still a thing.
at USC, Nov. 4
USC has a Heisman favorite in Sam Darnold. On the road, this just doesn’t fall in Arizona’s favor. I can’t even imagine this being the game where the really bad team knocks off a top- 10 team and stuns the college football world.
vs. Oregon State, Nov. 11
Gary Anderson has a track record of improvement where ever he goes and Oregon State isn’t a doormat anymore. It’s a winnable game, especially keeping things in Tucson. Had this been in Corvallis, things would be a lot different. But the home factor makes me give Arizona the slight edge.
at Oregon, Nov. 18
It’s a real possibility that two-time Arizona commit Braxton Burmeister is the starting quarterback by this point.
But Oregon just has too much talent collected on its roster and head coach Willie Taggart seems like a guy that his team will play hard for all season long.
at Arizona State, Nov. 25
Then we get to Arizona State, where literally anything can happen.
I don’t think Arizona State is going to be good at all, and its schedule is brutal. But Tempe has not been kind the last few years, and I can’t say that Arizona win leave with a win.
So that puts Arizona at 5-7 on the season, 2-1 in non-conference play and 3-6 in the Pac-12. But as you can tell, there are a few games I’m unsure about. It’s just so hard to gauge where this team is considering all the injuries Arizona played with last season, and all the newcomers Rodriguez says he will play.
But the uncertainty in the Pac-12 makes this season so intriguing. Once you get past USC in the Pac-12 South, it’s really just unknown territory. Then you figure Stanford, Washington and Washington State will be solid, but the remaining three in the North all have their question marks and downfalls, too.
What’s the magic number for Rich Rodriguez to keep his job? I have no idea. There’s good reason to believe he’s staying simply due to the financial strain on the department with his buyout and a new coach’s salary. The extensions of Jay Johnson and Mike Candrea make things interesting.
But to play off of that, UA athletic director Dave Heeke seems extremely progressive in his moves to solidify Arizona. So much to a point where I’m not sure Rodriguez fits in his long-term plans.
2017 will be an eye test, where it comes down to how competitive this team looks and if the talent on the field shows progress to climbing out from the bottom of the Pac-12 South.