Oct. 14, at Arizona
2016 Record: 3-9 (1-8)
2016 Recap: 2016 was the worst year for Arizona football since the first two years under Mike Stoops in the middle of the 2000s. Until the final game of the season, against an Arizona State team that had clearly quit on the season, the Wildcats were winless in the Pac-12, and didn’t even look competitive in most of the games, losing by double digits in all but one of its eight conference losses.
The main issue for Arizona was that, for the first time under Rich Rodriguez, the offense wasn’t enough to make up for a bad defense. The Wildcats only scored 30+ points three times all season, as starting quarterback Anu Solomon battled injuries and the backups were inconsistent. Arizona suffered many injuries on the offensive side of the ball, but you would still think Rodriguez would be able to generate offense — that he wasn’t, for a large part of the season, has to be a worrying sign going forward.
Defensively, Arizona was bad, as you might have expected in the first full Scooby Wright-less season. Even with as bad as the defense was, if the offense had been a typical Rodriguez offense, the Wildcats would have been competitive at least. As it was, with the offense being mediocre and the defense being bad, the combination was enough for Arizona to turn in one of its worst seasons in recent memory.
Returning Starters: 14 (seven on offense, seven on defense)
Notable Recruits: ATH Nathan Tilford , ILB Colin Schooler , TE Bryce Wolma , ILB Joshua Brown
2017 Projection: Arizona is at a bit of a crossroads — or at least, in terms of the Rich Rodriguez era. The trend-line isn’t good, with Arizona going from winning the Pac-12 South in 2014 (remember that?!) to going 7-6 in 2015 and then missing a bowl game last year in, again, a season where the Wildcats weren’t even competitive most of the time. Expectations are not for Arizona to go 10-2 every year and win the Pac-12, but the Wildcats need to at least remain competitive for Rodriguez’s seat to remain cool. If the season goes as poorly as last year, or close to it, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Arizona move on.
So, will it be that bad? We tend to think not quite — but it still might be a stretch for Arizona to make a bowl game. The offense should be better. A consistent year with either Brandon Dawkins or Khalil Tate at the helm should give the offense a boost. Both quarterbacks are better dual-threats than Solomon was, and if the offense is overall a bit healthier than last year, it should perform significantly better. Defensively, the Wildcats should also be a bit better, if only because they can’t be much worse, but there isn’t some huge influx of talent coming in. Who they had last year is basically who they have this year, and last year, most of these guys stunk. Expecting marked improvement is probably a stretch.
And that leaves the schedule. In the non-conference, the Wildcats have a probable loss to Houston, a win over Northern Arizona, and then what we would consider a toss-up versus UTEP on the road. In conference play, Arizona avoids Stanford and Washington, in favor of Cal and Washington State, which is probably a good trade. The likeliest wins include at California (which should be very bad in 2017), against Oregon State at home, and at Arizona State. We’d be stunned if Arizona won all three, but winning two of those seems reasonable. So, with two wins in the non-conference (we’ll hand them UTEP), and two wins among those three in conference, that’ll leave Arizona having to win two of Utah at home, UCLA at home, Washington State at home, USC on the road, or Oregon on the road to get to bowl eligibility. It’s not impossible, but that’ll require some bigger improvement on offense than we’re anticipating.
Outlook for UCLA: So, now through six games, UCLA will have played just one really good run defense in Stanford. Even with our concerns about UCLA’s offense, the schedule shapes up for UCLA to sharpen things against some bad run defenses. Of course, that’s dependent on UCLA’s run offense having at least the potential for competence, which is something it lacked last year. If the run offense is as bad as these run defenses, then it’ll be the classic case of the resistible force vs. the movable object.
That all said, Jim Mora has basically owned Rich Rodriguez every year, and the Bruins are significantly more talented than Arizona. Even last year, when UCLA’s offense was an affront to common decency, the Bruins hung 45 points on Arizona and averaged 7 yards per play. Of course, notably, the Bruins still averaged under 4 yards per carry in the game, and that was a bad Arizona run defense.
This is on the road, so there’s that to consider, but we have to figure that the Bruins, coming off a bye week, will be ready to go, and should enter the midpoint of the season with a nice conference win.
Next up: Oregon