Yesterday, in honor of the college football season finally starting, I looked into what Arizona’s strengths will be on the gridiron this season. Now, it’s time to analyze what could turn a season full of optimism into one the Wildcat faithful will shove out of their minds.
Here are the biggest weaknesses for Arizona football in 2018.
The only place on the depth chart where attrition really took a toll this offseason was on the offensive line. The ‘Cats lost three starters from a pretty solid unit last year, but there was still reason for optimism considering the returning starters were All-Pac-12 center Nathan Eldridge and captain Layth Freikh at left tackle, the two most important positions on the line.
Unfortunately, Freikh will not be playing against BYU or Houston, and Eldridge has tweaked his knee in camp. This means there’s a high chance Arizona could start the season against two solid opponents with an all new offensive line. There is young talent on the line besides Eldridge and Freikh, but any time you’re sticking a Heisman candidate behind green underclassmen there has to be some concern.
There were bright spots in the kicking game last year, notably Lucas Havrisik and Josh Pollack both performing well placekicking. Unfortunately, those bright spots were not enough to cover one of the worst punting units in recent memory. Arizona didn’t have to punt much, but when they did it was likely not going very far. On top of that, Shun Brown, while sometimes explosive, seemed to have trouble fielding punts well into the season.
To be fair, Arizona has addressed these issues pretty well. The Wildcats picked up grad transfer punter Dylan Klumph from Cal, who has an absolute cannon for a leg. Shun Brown will have spent a whole offseason practicing punt returns, and if he improves his fielding he could be a force for the Wildcats.
Until we see those improvements though, the special teams doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Arizona has some fantastic players at the top of their depth chart, and there are some talented players playing back-up right now. That being said, injuries could really wreak havoc on a team so dependent on young playmakers. Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor are both phenomenal, but there are no known quantities below them. A similar situation plays out at receiver and the front seven, where great players like Colin Schooler and Shawn Poindexter are backed up by underclassmen that haven’t seen game action yet.
Depth is always going to be hard to accumulate at Arizona, and the coaching transition makes it even more difficult. However, this roster could quickly lose its luster with a couple of bites from the injury bug, and while such a problem would help Arizona teams of the near future, it would result in a squandered 2018.
The Pac-12 and Mountain West have complained for years, and for pretty good reason, that their TV partners do not do them any favors with game start times. Teams playing out west often start absurdly late in most of the country, and when those teams do venture east they’re often stuck with an absurd 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff. There’s also the issues of Pac-12 Networks limited distribution east of the Rockies. In the five games Arizona has that are scheduled so far, all of those issues are still there.
Arizona starts the season vs BYU at 10:45 p.m. ET, then goes to Houston to start at noon ET, the returns to Tucson to play Southern Utah — at 11 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network. Arizona does not have a kickoff time in the two most desirable slots — 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET until at least late September.
The Wildcats do have two conference games already scheduled for national TV, against Utah and Colorado, but those are on a Friday — and at 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. ET, respectively. There are seven other conference games still to be scheduled, but this not only hurts Arizona’s exposure, it could have a legitimate affect on the team’s performance, with two short weeks and one morning kickoff this season.
This isn’t a great answer, but truth be told I’m running out of things to complain about with this team. So it’s worth mentioning that, while this team has promise, it’s no guarantee that they will return to the New Year’s Six. The talent and schedule make a 10-win Pac-12 contender season within grasp, but it will take a bit of luck to reach that peak.
Arizona is still a young team (minus the receiving corps), and with youth there’s a chance that the team doesn’t perform up to their talent level, especially with Khalil Tate already receiving national headlines.
The Wildcats are a trendy “dark horse” team to contend for the conference title and even a Rose Bowl berth, but most analysts (and most computers) pin Arizona as an 8-4 type team that pulls an upset but can’t sustain their A-game all year. If this team has the mentality to match their talent, especially if they start hot and/or beat USC, then there’s no reason not to hope for an amazing year. Until then, it’s best to keep in mind this is college football, where chaos reigns, and that Arizona has not been ordained Pac-12 champion just yet.
Truthfully, this team has many more strengths than weaknesses, and I can’t imagine a year where the ‘Cats don’t at least reach the Alamo or Holiday Bowls and spend most of the year hovering around the Top 20. With any luck, we’ll be celebrating Arizona’s best season in five years and still have hope for 2019 come January.
Again, this is part of a two-part preview series. Arizona’s strengths were covered Sunday. The Wildcats kick off their season against BYU at 7:45 p.m. MST on Sept. 1 in Tucson.