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What we know—and what we need to find out—about Arizona football heading into Pac-12 play

Texas Tech v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

By virtue of their 28-14 win over Texas Tech last weekend, the Arizona Wildcats are an above .500 football team for the first time in the Kevin Sumlin era. And while a 2-1 record may be nothing to write home about, it sure beats having the number reversed — or worse.

The funny thing is that despite their record, which most recently was boosted by a home win over Texas Tech, it’s still tough to know what to make of this team.

The Wildcats are not alone in that (see: State, Arizona), because their success has not exactly come in a dominant fashion, nor have their failures been so profound as to feel like there is no hope for improvement.

Whichever camp you fall into, either one that is optimistic about this team’s chances over the next nine games or pessimistic, it is tough to argue against your position.

Such is the case when you have a team with so many unanswered questions. So, rather than try to predict what will happen during Pac-12 play, let’s instead take a look at the team that will be opening its conference slate next Saturday against UCLA.

We know...

...the running game is, once again, set to contend for tops in the Pac-12.

Three games into the season the Wildcats are averaging a conference-best 307.7 rushing yards per game, while their nine rushing touchdowns also pace the league. Led by J.J. Taylor and also featuring Gary Brightwell, Bam Smith, Michael Wiley and Nathan Tilford and supported by an improving offensive line, there’s no reason to doubt the Cats’ ability to run the ball.

Arizona may not have the kind of success they did against NAU or Texas Tech every game, but this team can run the ball. It should run the ball.

...Khalil Tate is not the same kind of player he was two years ago when he burst onto the scene.

He is Arizona’s leading rusher through three games with 238 yards, including an 84-yard TD run against Texas Tech that really helped set the tone. There are fewer designed runs in Noal Mazzone’s offense, however, and Tate himself seems less apt to just take off instead of waiting to find an open receiver. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though Tate’s growth as a passer is still incomplete. He has not seen open receivers and has misfired on some easier throws when he has looked their way, and he has cost the team some yards by running out of bounds.

But while Tate is not perfect, he is still one of the most dynamic players in college football as well as Arizona’s best chance to win.

...there is plenty of raw talent at wide receiver, and a pecking order may be emerging.

Arizona needed to replace an insane amount of receiver production going into the season, and while there was talk about guys stepping up, no one really knew how it would all shake out. The Wildcats taking the air out of the ball against Texas Tech and barely needing to throw against NAU has limited the overall numbers, but we’re starting to see some wideouts emerge from the pack. Transfer JuCo transfer Tayvian Cunningham was billed as a speed guy, but he’s proven to be more than that in leading the team in receptions and receiving yards. Stanley Berryhill III has also built on what he did last year, and Jamarye Joiner has flashed plenty of ability at his new position.

Others have contributed and while you can expect others to make plays, those three seem to be the favorites for catches.

We need to find out if...

...the defense actually turned a corner against Texas Tech.

After giving up nearly 600 yards of offense to Hawaii and then surrendering 28 second-half points to NAU, there was plenty of reason to wonder if the Arizona Stadium scoreboards would be able to keep up with Texas Tech’s offense when it faced the Wildcats. So of course all Marcel Yates’ group did was hold the Red Raiders to 14 points on 411 yards of offense. Arizona limited its high-powered opponent to just 7-17 on third downs and 1-3 on fourth downs, and allowed just 5.6 yards per pass and 4.2 yards per run. It was an impressive performance featuring a pair of interceptions and some great open-field tackling. Should we expect more of that?

Arizona’s defense won’t normally be that good, though the team has shown a knack for creating turnovers with an NCAA-best 8 interceptions, which is nice. So, with a talented and improving secondary and quality linebackers, there’s reason to think the defense may turn out to be at least borderline respectable.

...Tate can stay healthy over the course of an entire season.

The next college football season Arizona’s QB makes it through unscathed will be the first. He even got hurt near the end of the Texas Tech game. The bye week may be enough to get him right and he has done a good job of avoiding big hits, while fewer designed runs means he’s not constantly exposed to big hits. Still, it’s fair to wonder if he’s just not built to hold up. With Grant Gunnell waiting in the wings Arizona’s situation isn’t terrible behind Tate, but the coaching staff would likely prefer to not have to burn the freshman’s redshirt this season and the non-Gunnell options aren’t particularly inspiring.

Tate playing in all 12 games this season would be huge because it would not only mean he has stayed healthy, but has remained effective, too.

...the Wildcats can win close games

Last season the Wildcats were 2-4 in games decided by one score or less. The season before, they were 2-3. Arizona’s Week 0 loss in Hawaii made them 0-1 in such scenarios this season. It would be nice if Arizona could win comfortably every game, but that’s just not going to happen. You can bet there will be some close contests in the near future. There is no single way to have success in one-score games, though it’s safe to say limiting penalties and turnovers while being effective in the red zone go a long way toward helping one’s cause. The Wildcats have scored touchdowns in 9 of their 11 red zone trips (with one of the two non-TDs being an interception late against Hawaii), which is good, but their average of 8.7 penalties per game leads the Pac-12.

Arizona is not a bad football team, but it’s also not one that is talented enough to make mistakes and still find a way to beat quality opponents.