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With Grant Gunnell at quarterback, Arizona Wildcats have a chance

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Arizona v Stanford Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Arizona has not beaten Arizona State in its last three tries, with the most recent Territorial Cup victory coming in 2016. The three-game losing streak to their rival is the longest since the mid-2000s, and a fourth straight defeat would tie for the longest losing stretch since the mid-70s.

According to most prognosticators it’s going to happen.

Besides a lovely ESPN computer that back in August gave the Wildcats a 52.5% chance of beating the Sun Devils in a September 26 tilt that ultimately never happened, predictions favoring Kevin Sumlin to notch his first victory in the Duel in the Desert are tough to come by.

Shoot, that same computer now has the Sun Devils with a 51.5% chance of victory. Apparently it prefers teams that have experienced linebackers?

Whatever the reason it’s understandable, especially with Arizona’s recent history and the defection of some key players over this incredibly long offseason. Paired with ASU’s recent success on the field and on the recruiting trail, you certainly have the makings of another Sun Devil victory.

And yet in football the team with the better quarterback is generally more likely to come out on top, and in the matchup of Arizona’s Grant Gunnell and ASU’s Jayden Daniels, it is the Wildcats who have the edge.

Wait, what?

According to the folks over at ProFootballFocus not only is Gunnell a better QB than ASU’s Daniels, but the sophomore is the best returning QB in the Pac-12.

Even the most optimistic of Arizona fans or Gunnell backers would likely think that’s a mistake. Not because he shouldn’t be ahead of ASU’s Daniels, but to list him over USC’s Kedon Slovis, for instance, seems like a questionable move.

Yet, PFF analyzes players differently than the rest of us, taking into account variables such as how accurate a pass truly was, whether or not the ball was placed in danger and the kind of talent the QB had to work with.

So, maybe Gunnell is getting a personal boost because his teammates, on the field, dragged him down. The question then becomes, as the roster doesn’t appear to have been massively upgraded over the offseason, is he good enough to put the team on his back and carry them past expectations?

It’s possible.

Even on a team that won four games overall and lost its last seven Gunnell still managed to pass for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns with just one interception, which came late against USC when he got hit while releasing the ball.

He completed about 65 percent of his passes, averaging eight yards per attempt.

Regardless of where you think he should be ranked going into the abbreviated 2020 season, it’s safe to say most everyone is expecting the sophomore, now the unquestioned starter, to take a big step forward.

Sumlin raved about Gunnell’s growth during a Pac-12 Media Day webinar, which will do nothing to temper expectations.

Clearly a better fit for Noel Mazzone’s offense than his predecessor, in eight appearances last season (three starts), the 6-foot-6 passer showed a firm grasp of the playbook and a willingness to take what the defense gave him. He was able to both move and protect the football, both of which are key for a team that will likely need to hide its defense.

In a perfect world Gunnell will not only take a step forward, but pave the way for the myriad skill talent that surrounds him. Running back is the deepest position on the team, and the receiver group is filled with potential. A quarterback who can accurately spread the ball around will boost the latter and the ability to produce via the air will make things easier for the former.

If that’s the way things go then Gunnell may not be the best QB in the conference, but he’ll be in the top-third and the Wildcats will likely be a surprise team.

Of course, there are some things working against Gunnell.

First and foremost is that defense, which figures to put a lot of pressure on the offense to produce. Remember those seasons where if Arizona went more than two or three possessions without scoring the game was basically over?

Furthermore, a turnover of any kind will likely put the Cats in a hole, and a QB who has to spend most of the day playing from behind is going to find the game to be substantially more difficult.

Also unlike last season when teams had to game-plan for both Gunnell and Khalil Tate, two wildly different kinds of QBs, now they’ll be able to focus their efforts on stopping the one who does not offer much of a threat with his legs.

A big-time recruit who landed with Arizona after declining offers from big-time programs such as Ohio State, Georgia and Alabama, Gunnell offers a flailing program something few in their situation have the benefit of: legitimate hope at QB.

Gunnell picked the Wildcats because of his relationship with Mazzone, and Mazzone wanted Gunnell because of how he would fit in his offense. The best coaches maximize the talent they have and neither Mazzone nor Sumlin did that with Tate, but regardless, things should run a lot more smoothly and efficiently with Gunnell taking all the snaps.

That could unlock a level of production we have not seen in a few seasons, setting Gunnell on the path to being Arizona’s first QB drafted by an NFL team since Nick Foles in 2012.

We will learn a lot about Gunnell beginning on November 7 when Arizona visits Utah, and by the time he and the Cats match up with Daniels and the Devils on December 11 it should be clear what the Pac-12 QB pecking order looks like.

The guess here is Gunnell will be near the top, but that’s only a guess.

For now, even though the oddsmakers don’t have much faith in Arizona, some people who analyze football for a living have plenty in Arizona’s quarterback.

If they’re right, a lot of what people think of the Wildcats will be wrong and the Territorial Cup may find its way back to Tucson after all.