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SB Nation expert: Arizona could be just as streaky in 2019

arizona-wildcats-sb-nation-bill-connelly-preview-2019-college-football-tate-sumlin-mazzone Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Think the 2018 season was a frustrating one for the Arizona Wildcats? It could be a lot more of the same this fall, according to SB Nation college football expert Bill Connelly.

Connelly is in the midst of his team-by-team previews of all 130 FBS schools, and earlier this week he got around to Arizona. And after rehashing what happened during Kevin Sumlin’s first year in charge, his projection for what to expect in the second go-around indicates some improvement could happen in 2019.

Not much, but a little. And Connelly said it will all depend on the two things that most-shaped last season: Khalil Tate’s handling of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system and the defense’s ability (or inability) to get off the field:

There were reasons to be encouraged by how the Wildcats played late in the year, at least until the fourth quarter against ASU. Because of returning production, UA is projected to improve again defensively, to 55th (from 74th). An offensive rebound will depend on both Tate’s health and how well intriguing young receivers play in bigger roles.

Among the statistical nuggets Connelly noted about last year’s team, the most interesting might have been how good Arizona was at spreading defenses out. The Wildcats led FBS in solo tackles created, much of that because of J.J. Taylor’s shiftiness and the play of the three senior wide receivers who must now be replaced.

The defense will live and die again by how it fares on third down, Connelly noted. Last year Arizona was 10th-best in creating third downs of 7-plus yards but were 11th-worst at making stops on such plays, and the Wildcats were in the bottom 10 nationally in a variety of blitz-related statistics.

“Until the blitz improves, all other concerns are secondary,” he wrote. “(Colin) Schooler is unbelievable against the run, but his 3.5 sacks shouldn’t have tied for the team lead.”

Connelly’s S&P+ metric ranks Arizona 52nd overall and projects them to win 6.2 games in 2019, though the schedule is very unbalanced.

“The Wildcats are projected favorites in each of their first five games, but they play five teams projected 32nd or better in their last seven,” he wrote. “Bowl hopes could hinge on early home games against Texas Tech and UCLA (and I really wouldn’t recommend losing at Hawaii in Week 0).”