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Crazy circumstances offer no excuse for Kevin Sumlin

NCAA Football: Arizona at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We knew that the 2020 football season would not be a normal one, not with the Covid-19 pandemic still very much a thing in the United States.

Low on the priority list but still important, there was belief over the last handful of months that somehow no more college sports would be impacted.

After losing out on the end of some seasons and the bulk of others, we all crossed our fingers and hoped that would be all the sports we lost.

Well, we recently learned the non-conference portion of the schedule would not happen, and at the rate things are going we may not get the rest of the slate, either.

At least, not in this calendar year.

The uncertain and convoluted nature of this offseason has no doubt been rough on every program, but it may be especially difficult for Arizona.

The Wildcats got just a handful of spring practices in before things were shut down, giving Kevin Sumlin and his staff—which includes five new coaches on the defensive side of the ball—little time to, well, coach.

Whenever the next college football season begins, and no matter what the schedule looks like, there will be a segment of Wildcats fans who feel like no matter how things go, Sumlin will deserve a pass.

That wasn’t the case pre-pandemic, but the idea now is that even if the Wildcats once again finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 South, a coaching change should not be made.

Nah.

A loss of revenue due to the pandemic may make Sumlin’s buyout unmanageable, which no matter the team’s record could lead to him making it to a fourth season.

But if money is no object, if the Wildcats don’t show any improvement then regardless of the circumstances that are beyond the coach’s control, a move should be made.

Why? Because of the things Sumlin can control.

Remember, this is being written under the assumption that Arizona struggles for a third consecutive year. What that looks like in wins and losses is anyone’s guess, as we still don’t know how many games the team will play or who all those games will be against.

But after winning five games in 2018 and then just four in 2019, the Wildcats must show some sort of improvement in 2020-ish. That doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of wins, because it is possible to take a step forward on the field and not have it show up in the standings.

That improvement will be made more difficult by recruiting classes that ranked 11th, 11th and 12th in the Pac-12 in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively. The 2021 class is shaping up to possibly be a bit better, and as I wrote not long ago Sumlin and his staff deserve credit for that.

Just, as good as the 2021 class could be, none of the commits can help just yet.

The challenge to improve this next season will be even tougher because this new defensive coaching staff most likely will not have an entire offseason’s worth of practices and time to teach.

It also doesn’t help that this offseason has seen some high-profile departures, including starting safety Scottie Young Jr. and now linebacker Tony Fields II.

Players leave for all sorts of reasons, but it seems rather dubious some who were in line to play a significant amount of snaps for a Pac-12 team would bolt. Did they not like the defense they were about to be a part of? Were they over playing for a coaching staff that did not recruit them?

Did they foresee another bowl-less season and decide they wanted a shot with a superior program, perhaps one that would improve their draft stock?

More importantly, will more follow them out the door as Young pondered in now-deleted tweets?

Only time will tell, and whatever transpires will be telling.

The Arizona football program is at a critical juncture. Not since early in the Mike Stoops era have they gone consecutive seasons without reaching bowl eligibility, and people who get paid to predict such things don’t expect things to turn around for the Wildcats this next season.

For a coach entering the third year of a five-year contract, especially one who has not proven he can win in Tucson, that’s not ideal. By now Sumlin was expected to have the program, if nothing else, at a level where bowl games could be expected.

Maybe all he needed was his players to make up the bulk of the roster, which they now do. In theory, those recruited by Sumlin and his staff should fit the system better and thus, lead to improved play.

Hopefully we’ll get to find out soon, but no matter when the next game is played it will begin a season that should tell us whether or not the coach has things moving in the right direction.

It’s possible the Wildcats will emerge from this offseason looking anew and ready to compete in the Pac-12. But if they don’t and instead we get a season not unlike the previous two, it will be a sign a change should be made.

As crazy as things are for college football right now, the uncertainty has engulfed the entire sport. But for Arizona, that feeling involves more than just when they’ll play again and what the atmosphere will be like.

No, for the Wildcats that uncertainty includes wondering if the coaching staff can turn things around. Even with all the distractions, this is the season we’ll find out.