It wasn’t that long ago that the Arizona Wildcats won the Pac-12 South Division title in football, doing so in 2014. On paper that wasn’t a particularly great team, and it showed by being picked to finish fourth in the preseason media poll, but with a little luck—cough, Hill Mary, cough—and some timely performances they were able to take the division and play for a conference title.
We don’t need to go into what happened next, against Oregon in Santa Clara, Calif.
Four years and a coaching change later, Arizona may have its best chance at a South crown since then even though the Pac-12 media tabbed the Wildcats to finish third. If that’s going to happen, expect it to be because of these factors:
Khalil Tate is the best quarterback in the division
Bringing back a starting quarterback is always a big boost to a team’s championship hopes, though Arizona isn’t the only school in the South Division with this luxury. Arizona State (senior Manny Wilkins), Colorado (junior Steven Montez) and Utah (junior Tyler Huntley) are in the same boat.
But if Khalil Tate lives up to even a fraction of the hype that surrounds him entering this season it won’t matter that he’s the least experienced of those returners.
How Arizona utilizes Tate this season will drive its offense, but on just sheer raw ability he’s got an edge over Wilkins, Montez and Huntley.
It also helps that UCLA and USC, Arizona’s biggest nemeses in recent years, both have major QB uncertainty. UCLA may have to settle for a graduate transfer from Michigan (Wilton Speight) while USC could end up turning to a true freshman (J.T. Daniels) who should still be in high school.
Only minor defensive improvement is needed
Arizona isn’t going to be winning games 13-10 this season, and that’s okay. It’s not necessary in the Pac-12, where the overabundance of strong quarterbacks and capable running backs makes it next to impossible to be a defensive-minded team.
While Washington ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense in 2017, allowing 16.1 points per game, the next-best team from the Pac-12 was Stanford (22.7 PPG, tied for 34th). Arizona’s 34.4 points allowed per contest was 109th nationally but still better than two other teams in the league (UCLA, Oregon State) and that was with a unit overloaded with freshmen and sophomores.
Those youngsters are a season older and wiser, and collectively they make for the most experienced returning defense in the South. Arizona is set to return nine starters, assuming defensive back Scottie Young Jr. is able to come back, and no other team in the division is set to return more than seven...and that’s UCLA, which was even worse on that side of the ball last year than the Wildcats.
Major improvement isn’t needed, just enough to keep from getting constantly torched for big plays. That means getting better up front in the form of increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The schedule lines up
For as much griping as Arizona fans do about the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule format in men’s basketball, they should be doing twice that much praising of the configuration for the slate the Wildcats got in football this fall. That’s because the schedule may end up being what tips the scales in Arizona’s favor in the South Division.
Arizona misses two North teams each year, and this fall it avoids Stanford and Washington. Washington is the overwhelming media favorite to win the league while Stanford has Heisman frontrunner Bryce Love.
Oregon is the best team the Wildcats face from that division, and the Ducks come to Tucson on Oct. 27. Their crossover road games are at Oregon State and Washington State, arguably the two worst teams in the Pac-12.
Arizona gets five conference home games while USC and Utah, the teams predicted to finish ahead of it in the standings, get only four. Since the Pac-12 went to divisions in 2011 the South champ has had five home games every time, including Arizona in 2014.
USC is the Wildcats’ first conference home opponent, on Sept. 29, which is significant because the Trojans may still be figuring out their quarterback situation.
Arizona’s toughest road games figure to be at UCLA, where it hasn’t won since 2010, and Utah. Those are in consecutive weeks in mid-October but the Wildcats do benefit from having the Utah game be on a Friday so they’ll get an extra day of rest before heading to Pasadena.