While debuts have been a sort of honeymoon period, the followup campaign has rarely been kind to Arizona coaches this century.
John Mackovic’s second season with the Arizona Wildcats resulted in four wins, while Mike Stoops’ led to just three.
Rich Rodriguez notched eight, his second consecutive season reaching that number.
Barring some sort of miraculous turnaround, Kevin Sumlin’s Wildcats are going to fall well short of Rodriguez’s second-year mark, and the team will need to pull off one upset over its final three games to better Mackovic’s.
At least it will be better than Stoops’?
Hardly worth celebrating.
As the Wildcats have fallen apart since their enjoyable 4-1 start, blame has been assigned to a host of people. Many point to Khalil Tate, and he is certainly a reason for their struggles. The entire defense as a whole, too, is an easy and appropriate target.
Tate will be gone after this season, and the opinion here is his time as Arizona’s starting QB should have come to an end with Saturday’s loss to Oregon State. The defense has seen a major change, as coordinator Marcel Yates and LB coach John Rushing.
Another target of ire, predictably, is Sumlin himself, and it’s difficult to argue given that the team is just 9-12 under him and, unlike Mackovic, Stoops and Rodriguez, inherited a roster that went to a bowl game the season before he arrived.
Once again, barring some sort of unexpected finish, Sumlin will be 0-for-2 for bowl games, with the Territorial Cup game against Arizona State being about the only opportunity to not have the bulk of the fan base officially turn on him.
It’s not all that unlike where the team was last season, although like last season, an upset over Oregon would get the team back in position to sneak into a bowl game. As surprising as the win over the Ducks was in 2018, doing so again this season would be a different level of shocking, and not just because the game is in Eugene, Oregon.
No, the difference in this season’s matchup, as well as the season in general, is while one could make the case the Wildcats were improving late last year, the opposite seems to be true now.
How else do you explain going from 4-1 to 4-5? Prior to the Oregon State loss one could have argued that the team was facing tougher opponents, which was true, but now?
Can one reasonably say the Wildcats are better now than they were in Week 1? How about better than they were last season?
The answer is no, though the reasons for that are varied. Injuries along the offensive line have not helped this season’s team, nor has a devastating lack of talent along the defensive line.
Inexperienced receivers have also played a role, and J.J. Taylor’s ankle injury was also costly. There is also the regression of Tate, who last season was at least a competent passer while not running with the ball.
His season, which had a flashy start and then peaked in Colorado, has completely fallen off the rails, to the point where he can no longer be viewed as the team’s best option at the QB position.
Sumlin understanding that would be the first major step toward salvaging what’s left of this season because, let’s be honest, aside from the rivalry game to end the season, the only thing that’s left to gain from 2019 is a head start on a better 2020.
That’s not to say the team shouldn’t try to win this year; Sumlin and his staff owe it to the seniors to do everything they can to be as competitive as possible. Just, in lieu of wins, if the Wildcats’ youth can show promise then perhaps this season will not go down as a complete waste.
If Grant Gunnell further cements his status as next year’s QB1, there will be hope.
If the team’s young receivers continue to show playmaking ability, there will be building blocks.
If the defense can show even a modicum of improvement under interim DC Chuck Cecil, there will be reason to believe that side of the ball isn’t a total lost cause.
And if the team shows some fight, there will be evidence that Sumlin has not lost control and that his tenure can still move in a positive direction.
Just because this season has been a disappointment does not mean the future has to be bleak. Looking at this team’s best players, few are seniors and and while some non-seniors are likely to head elsewhere, there should be a decent amount of returning talent.
Add in another recruiting class to go along with the growth of Sumlin’s first two and you have the recipe for what should be some improvement or, at least, a shallower pool of excuses.
Next season is next season, though, and there are still three games left in this one. Win the last one and many will be fine, while victories in two or more of them would change everything.
Yet, while assuming the team will not find a way to earn bowl eligibility may mean it’s past time to move on from 2019, the book isn’t yet closed on the season’s impact on the program.
There is still time to write another chapter or two, with the goal being to set the characters up to come back even stronger when we meet them again.