Let’s get this out of the way: When it comes to having a successful season, for some Kevin Sumlin must be holding a trophy following a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020.
While that would be an amazing moment for UA fans, there’s no doubt there would still be some Sun Devils crowing about how even though they are the champs, Arizona would still have never been to the Rose Bowl.
You know it’s true.
Of course, the next-best way to make the season a success would be to actually get to the Rose Bowl. That would be a most pleasant surprise, and though it’s doable, is probably not the benchmark we should be expecting the 2019 Wildcats to reach.
Coming off a 5-win season, expectations are certainly lower for Sumlin’s squad than they were around this time one year ago. Given that Arizona is relying less on an influx of crazy new talent than it will be what was already in place taking steps forward, that’s how it should be.
The Vegas line for Arizona is 6.5 wins, which sounds about right. There is enough talent on the team to reach a bowl game, albeit seemingly not enough to reach the top of the Pac-12 South and challenge for a conference crown.
So if we can agree that greatness is not on the menu, what should we be hoping for from this year’s team? What must happen for us to look at the season with fondness?
Reach a Bowl Game
Given that six wins is all it would take, this is the very least the team must do in order to feel good about the season. For all the complaints about the Rich Rodriguez era, his teams made it to bowl games in five out of six seasons, winning three of them. Sure, unless you are in a big-time bowl their results don’t matter much, and the one big bowl he made it to — the Fiesta Bowl — was one of the losses.
Arizona does not have a rich history of bowl eligibility. Rodriguez did a good job of consistently getting the Cats to the postseason, and that is the kind of tradition that Sumlin needs to build off of.
Max Out the QB Position
One of the big reasons why last season was a letdown was the struggles of quarterback Khalil Tate. The junior came into the season with the kind of hype not normally seen in Tucson, with the experts thinking the combination of he and Sumlin would yield Heisman-caliber results. However, due to injuries, a new offense, not being on the same page as the coaching staff or anything else you think, it didn’t.
Tate is healthy now, and reportedly is in a great spot with an improved understanding of the offense and feeling with the coaching staff. If Sumlin and OC Noel Mazzone are as good at this as we are supposed to believe, then Tate’s senior season should be one for the ages. If Tate gets hurt, then one of the backups — say highly-touted freshman Grant Gunnell — should be able to come in and keep the Wildcats competitive.
Given Sumlin’s history with QBs at Texas A&M, it is imperative the coaches prove they know how to get the most out of talented passers. That may be especially true for Mazzone, who many people have doubts about.
Noticeably Improve on Defense
On paper, this appears to be one of the most talented defenses we’ve seen in the Old Pueblo in some time. There’s no Scooby Wright III and they are not likely to remind anyone of Desert Swarm, but in Year 4 under Marcel Yates there should be a significant step forward. That may mean going from bad to average,
The defense may be on its way. After allowing 35.8 points in 2015 the Cats, in Yates’ first season, allowed a ridiculous 38.3 points per game in 2016. With little room to do anything but improve, the number dropped to 34.4 in 2017 and then last season it was 32.6.
While better, that number was still only good enough for 10th in the conference. Their struggles on third down were well documented, with Arizona surrendering first downs 41 percent of the time. The distance didn’t seem to matter much, making it all the more frustrating.
Given that Arizona will likely average north of 30 points a game, the defense does not have to be great. It would be helpful to generate more than 23 sacks and seven interceptions, and this roster has the talent to do it.
But perhaps more than that, with improved talent and depth it would be nice to see that Yates, who is likely coaching for his job, is a good coordinator who was just hamstrung by his roster.
Have Youth Emerge
A look at Arizona’s initial depth chart reveals upperclassmen sprinkled all over. On one hand, that means Arizona should be in solid shape this season. On the other, it could mean more questions for the next.
With that in mind, along with the redshirt rule that allows a player to appear in four games without having to burn a season, it would be great to see some of the program’s younger prospects at least flash this season. That is especially true for someone like Gunnell, who is seen as the future of the position.
Regardless of who ultimately gets a chance to establish themselves, a big part of this season needs to be finding the building blocks for the future while showing that a coaching staff hired largely due to its ability to recruit is able to do just that while developing talent.
Reclaim the Cup
This one should go without saying, and I’ll admit this season can still be a success even if Arizona loses to ASU. But really, the Territorial Cup needs to go back to Tucson, if only because it should have been in Tucson far more than it has.
The last time Arizona won back-to-back rivalry games was 2008 and 2009. The Cats should have won in 2010, but defenders couldn’t hang on to Brock Osweiler passes and there were those...ehem...PAT mishaps as well. Including that dreadful night, over the last nine games between the schools the Sun Devils have won six.
Do any of us really believe ASU has been that much better than UA over that stretch? If anything, watching the teams and games makes you feel like the record should be reversed, and if not for injuries and a couple of late-game meltdowns it would be.
For as disappointing as last season was, we all know if Arizona had emerged from 2018 with the Territorial Cup, we all would have felt pretty good about how the season went.
Go up to Tempe and win it back and, well, that would add some shine to the season no matter what else happens.
Some of these things will naturally lead to others. If Tate (or any QB) plays well and the defense improves, Arizona will absolutely reach the postseason. Those three things on their own, probably, would have Wildcats fans feeling good about things.
But if you want to call 2019 a success, the Cats will need to have all five.