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What Arizona football can still accomplish in its final three games

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A rough season could still plant seeds for a successful 2020

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, you know the story. The Arizona Wildcats lost a brutal game at Hawaii to open the season, and the surged to 4-1 against a paper-thin schedule and a minor defensive resurgence. A couple of losses to more talented teams followed by a couple of losses to teams of a similar caliber, and now the Wildcats are 4-5 with two top-ten teams left on the schedule.

This season has been pretty disappointing, but giving up on it won’t help. What would help is learning from previous mistakes and for this coaching staff to elevate some players to the next level entering 2020. This is especially important, as Arizona will return about 20 starters and most of the special teams unit as well.

Here are some specific goals to improve at the end of this season and build momentum for 2020, as well as how each would benefit the fanbase from an entertainment standpoint.

Annoy the whole Pac-12 and ruin the conference’s season

When you think of Arizona football, it’s easy to think of chaos. Whenever Arizona isn’t successful, something stupid is bound to go down when good teams face the Wildcats. No two teams have seen more successful seasons fall up short thanks to Arizona than Oregon and Utah.

The really prominent UA chaos victories in the average fan’s memory are the numerous weird losses Oregon has taken to Arizona. It started in 2007, when the first Chip Kelly team came to Arizona as a buzzsaw, saw their hopes collapse with Dennis Dixon’s ACL, losing to a 5-7 squad without their star QB.

We won’t talk about 2009 Arizona-Oregon (sigh), but 2013 and 2018 are also prominent examples in recent memory. Of course, Arizona’s best team of the millennium also beat maybe the best Oregon team of the millennium in Eugene in 2014. Nobody would confuse this year’s team with 2014’s, but this is an optimistic post, and it’d be really funny if the Pac-12 missed the College Football Playoff thanks to Arizona.

Of course, just winning in Eugene won’t be enough to guarantee that Larry Scott’s New Year’s Day is ruined. A win in Tucson will need to happen against another top-10 team in Utah.

The Utes had some trouble against Arizona in their early years in the conference, when Rich Rodriguez was at Arizona. But they now have a three-game winning streak against the ‘Cats and eviscerated them last season in Salt Lake City. Good thing this is supposed to be optimistic, right? Utah is probably worse than Oregon, and the game is in Tucson, so this one has a non-zero chance of happening. It’d still be a massive surprise that would take demonstrable improvement.

Will either of these events happen? Maybe, but probably not. Will both happen? Hell no. However, it would make me laugh very hard and it would build momentum for the program, and those are my two favorite things any run-down college football program can do. Of course, root for Arizona to win, but also root for chaos to win.

REALLY annoy ASU and REALLY ruin the Sun Devils’ season

Now, if you want to talk about plausible events while also making every Arizona fan feel every positive emotion, you’re looking at Nov. 30 in Tempe. Truthfully, if Arizona goes to Sun Devil Stadium, likely as a 4-7 team, and leaves with a victory over a team that was ranked as high as 18th earlier in the season, then this season will be redeemed in a lot of ways.

Let’s make no bones about this: Arizona State is a better team than Arizona as of this writing. They’ve recruited better, Herm Edwards is an amazing in-game coach, and the game will be played in that town by the puddle pond lake. However, if you’re reading this, you know that this game will probably be closely contested, and Arizona’s players will get up for it. I trust Herm more than Kevin Sumlin in close games, but I can see this result occurring without twisting my brain into a million loops.

There are a multitude of ways that this upset can happen, and all of them are high comedy and would serve as a nice palette cleanser after this season and last season’s [REDACTED] against ASU. Maybe Chuck Cecil manages to get this defense back to being their better selves and the offense does just enough. Maybe Khalil Tate or Grant Gunnell just go balls-to-the-walls #Pac12AfterDark shootout behind a healed offensive line and manage to score one more time than ASU. Maybe Arizona wins by 21 points without attempting a pass in the second half.

I’m gonna pick the Sun Devils to win, but this one is totally on the board. If nothing else, something dumb will probably happen in Arizona’s favor, even if a million other things go ASU’s way. I don’t need to tell any of you why you should want to see this game be a win. This one would be even better than beating Utah and Oregon, no contest.

Let Grant Gunnell show his best stuff

Now that we’ve talked about the technically winnable but still brutal games left on Arizona’s schedule, let’s talk about the more abstract things that the Wildcats could really use right now that would invigorate the program. First on that list would be a young quarterback who has shown some talent in limited action and fits perfectly in the offensive scheme. Luckily, there’s a young man who fits that description to a tee on this roster.

Nobody would confuse Gunnell with an All-American thus far, but they might confuse him with an All-Freshman selection. In the limited action he has seen this season, he has gone 83-for-125 for 1061 yards, nine touchdowns, and just one interception. That grades out to 9.6 adjusted yards per attempt, not anything special but solid for a true freshman who has been thrown into some rough situations.

Gunnell has the momentum behind him, and could be promoted to starter over the bye week. Even if he isn’t the starter, Khalil Tate and Gunnell will be sharing time, and when Gunnell is on the field, he will be facing great defenses. It’s vital that he is prepared to enter the game, likely without a lead, and get results against a defense more talented than Arizona’s offense. If Gunnell just treads water in these games, and then works hard over the summer, then I see plenty of reasons for optimism.

I would love for Tate to make these same strides, but his career is winding down, if not over. Gunnell’s career at Arizona is just picking up steam, and it’s always good to see the future of the program unfold before your eyes. That’s what Gunnell can offer these next three games, and that alone is worth sticking with the team.

Chuck Cecil earns the permanent defensive coordinator job

It’s always a feel-good story when a favorite son gets a job at the alma mater and makes the best out of it. The first game wasn’t very promising, but if Arizona can even put up an iota of resistance against good offenses, especially Oregon, than Cecil could be roaming the sidelines for years to come.

Marcel Yates’ tenure at defensive coordinator will go down as a failure. While that is true, he was obviously beloved by his players, and they all showed it multiple times. I truthfully believe that most of Arizona’s defensive performance against Oregon State can be traced to demoralization due to Yates’ firing. That isn’t an excuse, but I think there are bones of a good defense that a former NFL defensive coordinator could build if he gets a few years. The defensive line will probably never be a strength at Arizona, but linebackers and defensive backs are workable positions that have stars in place for 2020.

Cecil earning the job seems likely even if the Wildcats don’t improve in November, but if they do improve, then it’ll be very easy to get excited for next season. Utah and ASU don’t have dynamite offenses, but they could work the Wildcats all day long if Cecil can’t get the team going. Oregon has a world-beating offense, but they were weirdly shut down last season, so anything is possible. There’s nothing better than treasured alum getting his shot back home, and I think there’s a good chance Cecil will get multiple years in Tucson and even maybe end up a success. That groundwork will be or won’t be laid this November.

Depth players show something...anything

This one isn’t particularly likely to show up in the final three games, but while we’re being optimistic we can pretend Arizona has built depth outside of the offensive skill positions. The Wildcats will likely never have great depth, but we can hope for improvement this season.

The main reason I want to talk about the lack of depth for Arizona is that this year’s recruiting class probably won’t do much to alleviate the stress on the starting lineup next season. Almost the whole first team might be returning, and a fair amount of the second team will be back, but these players frankly need some help in the form of more talent. Unless Sumlin pulls off a December miracle, this recruiting class will be the worst Arizona class in a long time, and that could spell long-term doom. In the short-term though, it gives a chance for the current guys to become stars like Cecil himself did.

The position this would most help at is obviously the offensive line. Maybe the bye week gets Arizona some more starters back on the line for Oregon, but there won’t be a fully healthy unit traveling to Oregon. Against the Ducks front, it’s probably too much to ask for the backups to make a mark. Utah’s all-world front is definitely too much to ask. When a team is 4-5, though, you have to ask some tough questions.

I don’t want to see the backups put in at halftime because a game is a massacre, but if that does happen, let’s see if the Wildcats can find the next gem for them to try and build around. Maybe there isn’t one. If there is, he might show up this November as the Wildcats try and gain some kind of positive energy.

Make a bowl game or win the Pac-12 Championship (and Rose Bowl)

So this is entirely tongue-in-cheek because I think both events are almost impossible, but it’s fun to talk about Arizona doing good things as opposed to bad things. We’ve mostly been over how U of A can reach a bowl (two wins, with both likely being dumb), but let’s get absolutely wild with this and discuss the 2020 Rose Bowl champion Arizona Wildcats scenario.

By my own super smart and super serious calculations, the following events need to occur:

Week 11:

Arizona State defeats USC

Week 12:

California defeats USC

Arizona defeats Oregon

UCLA defeats Utah

Week 13:

Arizona defeats Utah

USC defeats UCLA

Week 14:

Arizona defeats Arizona State

California defeats UCLA

Colorado defeats Utah

CCG:

Arizona defeats Oregon

Rose Bowl:

Arizona defeats Minnesota (because if we’re getting Arizona to the Rose Bowl, we’re DEFINITELY getting Minnesota there too)

At the end of the regular season, Arizona would be in a four-way tie for first in the division at 5-4 with USC, UCLA, and Utah. Arizona and UCLA would be 2-1 against that group, and as Arizona defeated UCLA, they would go the Santa Clara. Even if Arizona State beat both Oregon and Oregon State to force a FIVE-WAY PAC-12 SOUTH TIE, Arizona and UCLA would be 3-1 against the group and the same head-to-head would apply. Then Arizona just has to beat Oregon and a Big Ten team (I’m making it Minnesota because I like fun).

Why couldn’t this happen again? I think I accidentally sold myself on this. Y’all, Arizona is finally going to the Rose Bowl! I’m buying my tickets to Pasadena!