The Arizona Wildcats’ first game is only a few days away, and they will be looking to have a bounceback season in Kevin Sumlin’s second year at the helm.
Before Saturday’s Week 0 matchup at Hawaii, we answered some of the important questions facing the team this season. Go HERE to read similar previews on other teams.
Who is Arizona’s most important player on offense this season?
It has to be the quarterback, right? Khalil Tate’s career has been, in his words, rocky so far.
He predictably struggled when he was thrown into the fire as a 17-year-old true freshman, looked like the best quarterback in the country for parts of his sophomore season, which led to a ton of hype entering his junior season, which he did not live up to.
Tate posted solid passing numbers—2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns—but saw his rushing totals plummet tremendously, going from 1,411 yards to a measly 224 in the same number of games. That dip can be traced to multiple injuries as well as some other factors like Tate having to learn a new offense.
But he is healthy entering 2019, so the expectation is that he will return to being a dual-threat quarterback, though the extent of which is unclear. It is scary to think about what Arizona’s offense can become if he recaptures his 2017 form, considering it still led the Pac-12 in rushing last season in spite of his inactivity.
Who is Arizona’s most important player on defense this season?
One of the edge rushers. Look, junior linebacker Colin Schooler is Arizona’s best defensive player and that probably won’t change this season. But the Wildcats have to do a better job of rushing the passer or it will be another rough year defensively.
Arizona only tallied 23 sacks last season, the fourth-least in the Pac-12, and allowed a Pac-12 worst 269.5 passing yards per game. It is the No. 1 reason the Wildcats ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in both total defense and scoring defense.
So...who is going to be the guy to get to the quarterback? Redshirt sophomore Jalen Harris has received a lot of praise this offseason. He started the last four games of 2018, picked up four sacks, and has done nothing but good things to prime himself to build on that success in 2019, including adding a ton of weight to his tall, lanky frame.
Another candidate is fellow STUD Kylan Wilborn, who, like Tate, was one of Arizona’s most productive players in 2017 only to see his production quiver in 2018.
300-plus-pound JuCo defensive tackles Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa are options as well. Arizona plans to use a four-man front this season and the hope is that it will allow the unit to push the pocket on a more consistent basis.
What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
Other than Tate’s rushing and the defense getting pressure on quarterbacks, third-down defense and red-zone efficiency are other areas the Wildcats sorely need to improve.
Arizona allowed opponents to convert on 41.1 percent of third downs last season, ranking 81st in the country. What is worse is 34 of those conversions came on 3rd-and-7 or longer. Football is a complex game, but Arizona simply needs to find a way to get its offense on the field.
And then when the offense is on the field, it has to do a better job maximizing its scoring opportunities. Arizona managed just 4.36 points per red zone trip, better than only Cal (4.1) among Pac-12 teams. Fifteen times the Wildcats settled for a field goal inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.
If you’re looking for a reason why Arizona lost several close games last year, there’s one.
What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?
I am going to cheat and say the Hawaii and Texas Tech games. Because if the Wildcats lose one or both of those non-conference tilts, they will be facing a steep climb to bowl eligibility, since the only conference games they would likely be favored to win are the Oregon State game (at home) and maybe the Colorado (on the road) and UCLA games (at home).
So anything other than a 3-0 start to the season will probably turn out to be devastating. And, yes, it goes without saying that the Territorial Cup is important too. Arizona cannot let Arizona State keep it for a third straight year.
What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?
Well, if you ask our staff, Arizona will go anywhere from 6-6 to 8-4. At minimum, the Wildcats need to make a bowl game for 2019 to be considered anything but a disaster.
I originally had the Wildcats going 5-7, but I bought into some of the optimism in fall camp, especially all the talk about improved size and depth, so now I think they will finish 6-6 with a trip to the Cheez-It Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl.
I think Arizona does get off to that precious 3-0 start, but will have trouble with its difficult conference schedule, ultimately entering the Territorial Cup with a 6-5 record.
Anything can happen in rivalry games, so I very easily could have picked UA to win that game and go 7-5, but 6-6 is my official prediction.