College football is officially back, and 2018 promises to be another year full of excitement and intrigue as we head into year five of the College Football Playoff.
The Arizona Wildcats hope this year will bring success the program hasn’t seen since 2014, and there’s plenty of reason for hopefulness about this year.
Here are some of Arizona’s greatest strengths in 2018.
Last year’s team showed flashes of brilliance that were not expected at all, then finished a mediocre 7-6. It was one hell of a rollercoaster, but it’s one teams often experience when their depth chart is riddled with youth, as Arizona’s was last year. Now, all those freshmen and sophomore are sophomores and juniors, and all of them have improved since January.
Arizona had one of the youngest defenses in the country last season, and the offense wasn’t exactly full of upperclassmen, either. When young players like Colin Schooler and J.J. Taylor flashed their upside, it was even harder when the team made mistakes characteristic of underclassmen.
Those woes are officially gone. While it’s true the offense has some holes to fill, the sheer number of young stars filling the rest of the lineup is very reassuring and sure to mean many fewer mistakes from this year’s squad.
It is true that Kevin Sumlin failed to replicate impressive Year 1 results at Texas A&M, which led to his firing. It is also true that Sumlin spent nearly five years looking for a quarterback after Johnny Manziel left who was both talented and didn’t transfer.
That being said, this just feels right. Sumlin’s offense is similar enough to RichRod’s for the current players to learn, but also different enough that we’ll see exciting new plays this year. Sumlin coached both Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel, arguably two of the best college quarterbacks this century, and certainly two of the most productive. Arizona has a quarterback you might’ve heard of who will benefit from having a gifted quarterback coach like Sumlin around.
Arizona still hasn’t played a down under Sumlin, but it feels like he was the right guy to make the ‘Cats a great team this year and beyond.
I tried holding off talking about him, but he’s just too good not to mention. Heisman candidate Khalil Tate is going to be amazing to watch this season. He was one of the best runners in the nation last year AS A QUARTERBACK, and his throwing was powerful, well-timed, and accurate. Even if he had lackluster weapons, just him being in the backfield would be enough to make Arizona an offensive juggernaut. Lucky for him (and us), he is surrounded by playmakers.
J.J. Taylor is one of the more underrated running backs in the Pac-12, probably because he was a redshirt freshman sharing the backfield with Tate. Nevertheless, when Tate gives the ball up Taylor is more than capable of ripping off a few big runs each game.
With Tate likely throwing more this year in Sumlin’s and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense, it’s also vital that all of Tate’s favorite targets return. Tony Ellison and Shun Brown both made some critical plays last year, and Shawn Poindexter is a big target that will help in the red zone. That’s not even mentioning tight end Bryce Wolma, yet another young piece of this offense that will gash opposing defenses.
With all this talent in the skill corps, it’s hard not to see Arizona being one of the best and most exciting offenses in the country.
There’s a lot of hope and a lot of skepticism concerning the still young front seven of this Wildcat defense. One thing is for certain about this defense, the secondary has the chance to be awesome.
Only two seniors will be starting for Arizona on defense, and those two are cornerback Jace Whittaker and safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. While the Wildcats were quite awful on defense last season, these two were important reasons the defense didn’t entirely collapse. With exciting receivers all around the Pac-12 (especially ASU’s N’Keal Harry), Whittaker and Flannigan-Fowles will be crucial in keeping the Arizona defense at least respectable.
While the senior leaders are important, there is promising youth in this unit as well. Lorenzo Burns is another corner who could stop big play threats with authority this season, and Jarrius Wallace and Scottie Young Jr. will police the interior, while building on their freshman seasons. While he’s not young, UNLV grad transfer cornerback Tim Hough will also play a key role in his only year in Arizona.
If this secondary plays like it’s capable of playing, Arizona might have the defense to really make them a force in the Pac-12.
This is a somewhat cheap answer, but it’s worth noting how lucky the Wildcats are that this schedule aligns with this amount of talent. Despite having to play a 9 a.m. game against a dangerous Houston team in Houston, Arizona’s remaining schedule sees most of their biggest threats coming to Tucson.
USC and Oregon are likely the two best teams on the slate this year, and both of them will be playing at Arizona Stadium. UCLA and Utah are tough road trips, but both games are more winnable than playing in the Coliseum or Autzen. The reason Oregon is one of the toughest games on the schedule is that Arizona misses Washington and Stanford in cross-divisional play, two teams who are universally considered the two best in the North Division.
It’s not a perfect schedule, but Arizona has the best conference schedule it will have for a long time, and that will help their case to be one of the best teams in the conference and the nation.
This is part of a two-part preview series. Arizona’s weaknesses will be covered later. The Wildcats kick off their season against BYU at 7:45 p.m. MST on Sept. 1 in Tucson. You can watch the game on ESPN.