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Roundtable: How important is the Territorial Cup for Kevin Sumlin’s job security?

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arizona-wildcats-college-football-spring-practice-coronavirus-sumlin-ncaa-cancel-suspend-2020 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats will either end Kevin Sumlin’s second season on a high note by beating the Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe on Saturday, or it will end on the lowest of lows, with seven straight losses and a 4-8 season.

The Wildcats are 9-15 under Kevin Sumlin, missing a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2007. Which begs the question, if Arizona falls to ASU on Saturday, could it be the last time Sumlin strides the UA sidelines? Or does he deserve a third season to right the ship?

Here’s what our staff thinks.

Christian Mortensen: The conventional thinking is that win or lose against ASU this weekend, Sumlin will be back at the helm in 2020.

Being that it would be his third season in Tucson, he’d naturally have more of his own recruits to work with and even more time to put together the exact coaching staff he wants.

With that being said though, a loss against the Sun Devils would likely irreparably damage his relationship with an already alienated fan base.

The question in my mind is, if Arizona were to lose to ASU this weekend, what would Sumlin have to do next season to gain back everybody’s trust?

I doubt a 7-5 season in 2020 would make up for a 9-15 record in his first two years and I personally don’t see the Wildcats doing anything crazy next year like going to their first ever Rose Bowl or even winning the Pac-12 South.

So, while I don’t think Sumlin would get fired immediately for losing to ASU, I do think if he loses, it will probably seal his fate as a dead man walking next year.

Matthew Rein: I think regardless of what happens in the Territorial Cup game, Sumlin will return for his third year at Arizona. That being said, winning against ASU in Tempe — which Arizona hasn’t done since 2011 — would go a long way with Wildcat fans. Considering last year’s 4th quarter collapse against ASU at home, the game this Saturday is certainly high-stakes for the coaching staff and team.

If Arizona loses, especially in embarrassing fashion, the program would go into the off-season losers of seven straights contests. If Arizona manages to win, the ‘Cats are able to build some momentum headed into a make-or-break year for Sumlin.

While this game won’t determine Sumlin’s job on its own, it has major implications for his future with the Arizona football program next year and beyond.

Gabe Encinas: I don’t think that the ASU game should have any impact on whether or not Sumlin comes back next year. I personally don’t think Sumlin will end up being successful at Arizona, but he without a doubt needs to get his entire third year unless catastrophe hits.

Over the last two years there has been a good amount of talent in the starting lineups, but there were some glaring holes and a lot of young guys he had to play which he couldn’t fix in one recruiting class so you at least need to give him one more season to show he’s actually building towards something.

Last year was a very disappointing start to the Sumlin era, as I felt like they could have won about six or seven games. Recruiting ended up being pretty solid when you look at the talent brought in. It’s not a good look to finish 11th in the Pac-12 in rankings but when I evaluate that class I feel like it’s probably around 8th which to me is fair.

Looking back at expectations for the 2019 season, I had this group winning five games. The schedule was unfavorable even with a shaky Pac-12 and it didn’t seem likely that Arizona was going to suddenly flip the switch against teams like USC, Stanford, Washington, Oregon and Utah, even if three of those five ended up being vulnerable.

It’s tough to win when so many starting offensive linemen go down to injury so it’s hard to truly evaluate the offense. But it’s also hard to win when you’re flipping between two quarterbacks. Defense was an absolute nightmare this season and it they just seemed so unprepared and undisciplined.

Losing this game certainly leaves a sour taste in the mouth and makes Sumlin’s first two years look extremely mediocre. Beating ASU takes a lot of pains and aches from the season go away as we saw in 2016. But after blowing a 19-point lead at home last year, Sumlin put himself in a big hole.

Regardless of the outcome, I’d love to see Sumlin continue to make changes in the coaching staff and get some firepower. Sumlin absolutely has to turn recruiting around as well. The staff did a terrible job of recruiting for the early signing period this year and lost a lot of recruiting battles to the Pac-12. This class looks extremely weak so far and it doesn’t seem likely for Arizona to land a single top 500 prospect at this point.

Ronnie Stoffle: I don’t believe the outcome of this game will factor into Kevin Sumlin’s future with the program. I think no matter the outcome (and we all have an idea of the outcome) he’s safe for another year.

There are a few reasons for my logic. First, it’s far too costly to cut bait at this point given all the money that was also tied up in the Rich Rodriguez buyout.

Secondly, Sumlin inherited a few nice pieces on both sides of the ball but overall, the roster was a mess when he showed up. There wasn’t much in the way of depth and size (specifically on the defensive front).

Lastly, the Marcel Yates situation really held things back. I’m not saying that this roster could have done better without Yates calling the shots. But come on, it probably would have done better. There were plenty of flashes over this season and last that suggest the defense was capable of better production. They just couldn’t string it together for consistency.

I think it only makes sense for him to come back for year three. He’ll finish up another recruiting class that is completely his and find a competent defensive coordinator. If next season yields similar results and they miss a bowl game, I’m cool with showing him the door.

Scott Moran: For this year, I would hope that the ASU game has no effect on Kevin Sumlin’s job security. I am a firm believer that all coaches deserve three years at any given job, especially now that the early signing period often cuts a new coach’s first recruiting class off at the knees, which did happen to Sumlin in 2018 thanks to his late hiring.

With that being said, Sumlin will and should enter 2020 with one of the hottest seats in the nation. Arizona hasn’t historically had a very talented roster, and despite that, the John Mackovic debacle at the turn of the milennium is U of A’s only serious long-term slump since they joined the Pac-10 in 1978. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this program is getting perilously close to another long stretch of rebuilding. A lot of that feeling is just due to malaise, and the best and sometimes only way to come out of a malaise like this is to beat a rival like ASU.

The Territorial Cup is unique in how single-minded each school is towards the other. Both UA and ASU had passive dislike for the New Mexico schools in the WAC era and have passive dislike for the SoCal schools in the PAC era. That passive dislike pales in comparison to the mountains of hate UA and ASU have for each other. As this decade closes, ASU has the upper hand of late, and a win in Tempe would bring things back to balance in a dramatic fashion.

Will a win in Tempe guarantee future success? Probably not, as Arizona’s recruiting has taken a dip it can’t afford and Sumlin is perceived as more of a recruiter than a game manager. What it would do is bring a jolt of energy that keeps the fanbase invested for Sumlin’s trial-by-fire year next season and possibly get some momentum in recruiting before that new December deadline. It’s a critical game that is close to a must-win, but a loss shouldn’t and probably won’t result in Sumlin’s firing this winter. He better be ready for 2020 though.

Brian J. Pedersen: I don’t think the result itself is as important as the effort that is shown, both by players and coaches. And by which players, since it’s very possible Arizona will see a mass exodus of contributors via graduation, NFL Draft early entry and transfers. Some of those guys may already have one foot out the door, but the younger players who Sumlin seems to have a better relationship with will need to show they’re giving their all. Winning this game isn’t necessary for Sumlin to keep his job, but it sure can’t hurt. It would be really hard to make a coaching change with the team coming off its highest point of the season.

Adam Green: Let’s put it this way: If the Territorial Cup will determine whether or not Sumlin is back for a third season, then the leaders in Arizona’s athletic department do not have a good plan in place for the program.

A win over the Sun Devils would not mean Sumlin has things heading in the right direction, nor would a loss indicate he can’t get things turned around. Short of an ‘18-style collapse or some other calamity of a coaching performance, nothing that happens Saturday night should matter in terms of Sumlin’s fate.

The good news is unlike a couple years ago, if Dave Heeke is going to make a move you figure it will come quickly after the game. Who knows, word might even leak out before it.

If that’s the case, then at least Arizona will have an early start in trying to find a new coach. Waiting weeks to part with Rich Rodriguez meant the new coach (Sumlin) would be behind when it came to assembling a staff and then coaching, the effects of which we may be seeing today.

But if Sumlin is kept, then it will up to him to try and find the right defensive coaches, as those hires will determine whether or not he makes it through his third season and into a fourth.

Brandon Combs: I don’t think that the T-Cup will have any bearing on if Sumlin gets canned or not after this season.

I completely understand why people want him gone. The results on the field haven’t been there and the defensive staff mess resulted in a defense that can’t get it done, among other things. If I’m being honest though, the fan base isn’t patient (this is not meant to be a stab at the fans). What I mean is it takes way, WAY more time to actually build a college football program than, let’s say, a basketball program.

First, Sumlin was brought in at a disadvantage being hired in January. By that time most, if not all, assistants had jobs and the pool was very thin to choose from.

Second, Sumlin had to make sure that he kept the 2018 recruiting class together. Not to mention he had to do that pretty much by himself and while getting a staff together. With that comes the fact that Sumlin has only had one actual recruiting class at Arizona. That isn’t enough to build the depth needed for this team.

Third, Sumlin has shown at least a willingness to make necessary changes. All I need to say is three defensive coaches fired.

Finally, as I mentioned above, it takes time to build a football program and two years isn’t it chief. Now if a lot of the same issues happen next year, then we can start talking.

All that being said, the T-Cup is a VERY important game and it’s time to bring the Cup back to Tucson.