The sophomore quarterback, following the team’s first practice on Oct. 9, was asked about the thought that the Cats may go winless over the course of a seven-game season.
“We don’t take it seriously at all,” he said. “Because from after the practice tonight, that’s just a joke to me, honestly. And I feel like we’re going to shock some people. The defense looked amazing. Offense looked amazing.”
Gunnell took a similar approach to his head coach, Kevin Sumlin, who earlier in the week appeared to be miffed over learning that his team was picked to finish last in the conference by the Pac-12 media.
Sumlin said he was unaware of that until the question was posed, which goes to show how little he cared. Further, he said it doesn’t matter.
“None of those people are playing or coaching in these games,” he added.
The idea that the Wildcats are going to struggle this season is not unfounded. It is not born out of spite for the coach or any kind of disdain for the program. Just, after posting seasons of 5 and 4 wins, respectively, while not bringing top-tier recruiting classes to Tucson, expectations are exceptionally low.
Hell, the staff here at AZ Desert Swarm was asked to make predictions and four of the five panelists pegged the team to win two or fewer games.
The fifth writer picked them to win three games — not exactly a great season — but certainly better than most expect.
That fifth writer was me.
Given all that’s transpired within the program, pessimism is understandable. There’s little reason to have confidence in Sumlin and the number of offseason defections left the defense, shall we say, a little thin at certain positions.
Flat out, the defense is not likely to be a strength. While both the defensive line and cornerback rooms have some proven talent, the former having added veteran transfers Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez to an already solid group, the team appears to be lacking at both safety and linebacker.
Yet, there is every reason to have confidence that the revamped defensive coaching staff, led by coordinator Paul Rhoads, will be an improvement over what was there before. Coaching can go a long way in football, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the new staff will provide not only better teaching, but an improved scheme.
Besides, as dire as things seem now Arizona did surrender a Pac-12-worst 35.8 points per game last season while recording just 17 sacks and 15 total turnovers. Things can’t really get much worse, right?
Actually, that doesn’t even matter much. Arizona need not be Desert Swarm or even barren gang (thanks for nothing, thesaurus.com). All that side of the ball will need to do is come up with a handful of stops each game, because the offense is going to be good.
Led by Gunnell, who himself said he “made huge leaps” over the offseason, the Wildcats have the makings of a team that will be tough to stop. Unlike Khalil Tate, who vacillated between electric and maddening, the new starting QB is primed to offer a level of consistency that will do this team good.
He showed as a freshman last season that he was careful with the football (just one interception while tossing nine touchdowns), meaning he’s not the type of QB who will put his defense in bad situations.
But perhaps even more than that Gunnell, who is most certainly a passing quarterback, should make excellent use of the talent he is surrounded with.
Say what you want about offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, but he has a history of coaching some pretty dynamic offenses. Now with a QB who fits his scheme, one who will make excellent use of the team’s stable of running backs and bevvy of talented receivers, and points should not be too difficult to come by.
It also helps that Arizona has an offensive line that has both talent and experience. It’s easy to forget just how effective Arizona was offensively not just two years ago but last season, at least until injuries wrecked the line. A quality offensive line goes a long way, and Arizona should start the season with that.
So let’s break it down.
Star quarterback? Likely. Stud running backs? Sure. Talented receivers? Yes. An offensive line that can make it all go? Indeed.
Arizona has had some really bad teams in the past, but none of them had an offense as good as this one.
When you consider that, this team may remind folks of the early days of the Rich Rodriguez era, where defense was mostly optional but it also wasn’t entirely necessary. Arizona may need to score 35 or more points to win each week, but there’s reason to believe they can do that.
If Arizona’s offense can move the ball, scoring points while also keeping their suspect defense off the field and away from poor field position, the games should at least be competitive.
Keep in mind none of this was written to say Arizona is going to contend for the Pac-12 South title. Their depth chart is intriguing but even still there are teams in the conference who are better on paper and at this time should be better than the Wildcats.
Neither UCLA nor Colorado are in that group, however, and both are on Arizona’s schedule. There are also tilts with a Utah team that lost a good many key players from last year and an Arizona State team who has high expectations but also has much to prove. The game against Utah is on the road but in Week 1, whereas the Duel in the Desert will take place in Tucson in December.
As of now ESPN’s FPI has the Wildcats favored to win just one game — home against the Buffaloes — though it essentially has the game against ASU as a toss up. But even the FPI has Arizona ranked ahead of Colorado in the South while projecting them for more wins than Washington State and Oregon State in the North.
Being picked to finish ninth is nothing to brag about, especially in Kevin Sumlin’s third season. But this season figures to be crazier than any we have ever seen, and for a team like Arizona — with an explosive offense and a mysterious defense — that could prove to be advantageous, at least for exceeding low expectations.
Is that an optimistic way to look at things? Absolutely. But hey, what else are biases for?