Kickoff is set for 7:45 p.m. PT, making it one of the last games to start on the first full day of CFB action.
And just in case you haven’t been following along with our coverage—shame on you!—here are some key storylines for the opener:
All eyes on Khalil
It seems like Khalil Tate has been pretty much everywhere this summer. Well, other than in front of microphones, as he only spoke to local reporters once during training camp. But he was also on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was a key attraction at Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles and has had his name near the top of almost every Heisman Trophy odds list.
Not bad for someone that’s only started seven games in his career and whose most memorable performance—an FBS quarterback-record 327 rushing yards against Colorado—came as a non-starter.
Tate enters his junior year with a ton of hype and incredibly lofty expectations, ones made more so by the pairing with quarterback gurus Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone. Sumlin has previously turned the likes of Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel into stars while Mazzone’s long and storied career as an offensive assistant has had him work with Phillip Rivers, Brett Hundley, Josh Rosen and many more.
We’re well aware of what Tate can do with his legs and in the Foster Farms Bowl last December we saw his potential as a passer. Now he gets to show if he can put it all together.
The new guy in charge
This is the third head coaching stop for Kevin Sumlin, who previously was at Houston (2008-11) and Texas A&M (2012-17). A&M fired him despite winning 51 games in six seasons and never fewer than seven, sending him on his way with a fat severance that made it possible for Arizona to swoop in and hire him for less than it was paying Rich Rodriguez.
Sumlin has inherited a team on the rise and could easily parlay one good season in Tucson into a bigger job somewhere else. But for the time being he’s ours and Saturday will be his first chance to impress Wildcats fans with his coaching.
Sumlin isn’t the only new coach on Arizona’s staff. It’s almost entirely different from RichRod’s final group with the exception of defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and inside WR coach Theron Aych.
A patchwork offensive line will get tested
Layth Friekh got an extra year of eligibility but the senior left tackle also has to sit out the first two games of the 2018 season. That’s NCAA logic in a nutshell.
Without Friekh, Arizona will be starting just one offensive lineman against BYU who has ever been on the field for the first offensive series of the game. That would be redshirt junior Cody Creason, he of the three starts in 2017, at right tackle.
Junior Nathan Eldridge isn’t on the depth chart, presumably because of injury—the new coaching staff apparently doesn’t like releasing injury reports—and instead a walk-on, redshirt sophomore Josh McCauley, is at center.
Friekh is being replaced at left tackle, at least for now, by true freshman Donovan Laie, while Michigan State transfer Thiyo Lukusa is at left guard and Bryson Cain is at right guard.
Khalil Tate is Arizona’s most precious asset and how this unproven line protects him (or doesn’t) will determine not just how the opener goes but how the entire 2018 season will unfold. BYU is huge up front, with 300-pounders and former power forwards prepared to knock Tate to the ground.
Putting it plainly, Arizona was bad on defense in 2017. The year before, too, but last year’s squad is the one that matters because most of those guys are back for this fall. That could be good or bad, depending on how that group has progressed during the offseason.
Marcel Yates is back for his third year as defensive coordinator, and while his numbers so far aren’t good he is now working with almost exclusively players he recruited to Arizona. That includes sophomores Tony Fields II, Colin Schooler and Kylan Wilborn, all of whom were tremendous as true freshmen in 2017 and figure to only get better.
It’s how everyone else around them performs that will be key, however.
The Wildcats addressed a major need in their 2018 recruiting class in terms of bulk on the defensive line by signing junior college transfer PJ Johnson. The 6-foot-4, 335-pound redshirt junior will be starting at defensive tackle, giving Arizona a pair of 300-pounders (redshirt senior nose tackle Dereck Boles is the other) that hopefully will plug up the middle.
Arizona picked off 19 passes last season, tops in the Pac-12, but was also last in pass defense because of a complete lack of pass rush. It must pressure opposing quarterbacks in order to keep the scoring down.
Will the Wildcats sell out the opener? Having an opponent with a rather … sizable following sure helps, but if a capacity crowd (53,646) fills Arizona Stadium on Saturday night it will mostly be due to UA fans who have bought into the promise that Kevin Sumlin et. al have sold over the last eight months.
The last time Arizona got more than 50,000 fans for its first home game was 2015, when 51,111 showed up to see the defending Pac-12 South Division champions beat UTSA. Only 43,620 were on hand for last year’s opener against Northern Arizona, the smallest Game 1 crowd since 2003.