This Season, The Wildcats Will Be Lucky To Keep Their Heads Above Water--Never Mind Smelling The Roses.
By Tom Danehy
TWO OF THE greatest collegiate football leagues in the United States are the Big 10 and the Pacific 10 Conferences. Twenty of the teams in these two great "10" conferences have played in the Rose Bowl, the New Year's Day extravaganza rightly referred to as "The Grandaddy of them All."
Unfortunately, due to the bumpkin nature (and/or the fierceness with which member schools want to hang on to marketing rights to the highly recognized name) of the Big 10, the two "10s" actually add up to 21. That means only one school out of these two great alliances has never been to Pasadena on New Year's Day.
And I'm here to tell you that for the millionth year of human existence (or 4,000th, if we are to believe Pat Robertson), Arizona will not be in the Rose Bowl again this season.
I spent much of the first half of this decade sticking my neck out proclaiming that this was the year for the Cats to go all the way. And darned if they didn't almost make it, year after excruciating year.
Heck, there was one season where they started off with only one win in their first four games and they still had the inside track to the Rose Bowl as late as November 14 of that year, when they lost, 14-7 at USC.
The next year they roared out of the gate with seven straight wins, got blasted at UCLA, and still could've gone to Pasadena, had they not blown a 20-0 half-time lead at pathetic Cal.
The year after that, they started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, lost to two WAC teams, got manhandled by USC and still could have gone to the Rose Bowl, were it not for a stab-me-in-the-heart-and-never-get-my-hopes-up-again 10-9 loss at Oregon.
Last year, the Cats just stumbled early and stumbled often in staggering to a 6-5 record. And the only way they managed to avoid a losing record was with a heart-stopping 17-point fourth-quarter explosion at ASU to stun the much-hated Sun Devils in the season finale for both teams.
During the early part of that run, a heavenly defense--quick, mobile and brutal--kept the Cats in title contention and the national eye. It did so by keeping the opposition quiet, occasionally scoring on its own and masking the fact that Arizona's offense bit big time.
Last season, the defense was merely superior instead of God-like, and the inoffensive Cats paid for it by going a mediocre 4-4 in conference play. The team which had finished tied for first and then second the two previous years slipped to a tie for fifth last year.
The Cats won't have to worry about Pasadena this year. They're going to have to concentrate on staying above water.
I went out and got a bunch of those preseason football magazines and they all kept saying the same thing: Arizona, sixth place. Actually, a couple said Arizona would hit seventh place, but I like to remain optimistic.
I finally found one which had Arizona finishing in third or fourth place in the conference and going to a post-season bowl game. But then when I read the article, it said, "Coming off their first losing season in...," my spirits sank. How much credence can you put in a publication which doesn't even know a team's record from last year (or, even worse, knows it and still thinks that 6-5 is a losing mark)?
So, I went down to Douglas to check things out. Camp Cochise was about the same as usual this year. Hot, nasty, enthusiastic. Most of the players don't believe they're part of a second-division club, but that remains to be seen.
One thing different this year: The offense is actually scoring in scrimmages. This could be a sign that new offensive coordinator Homer Smith is thinking about putting points on the board this year, or it could be that the much-vaunted Arizona defense has slipped a couple notches.
There's no way of knowing whether the offense is on the way up, or the defense is on the way down. Maybe both, maybe neither. It could all be blamed on relativity--that unpleasant phenomenon which, among other things, acts as a pernicious reminder that nature tends toward mediocrity.
The Cats should breeze against UTEP this Saturday, and then they catch something of a break by having two more non-conference games (at Iowa and at home with Illinois) before jumping into the Pac-10 schedule. Iowa is ranked in the Top 15 preseason and should be tough. Illinois handed the Cats a brutal 9-7 loss last year in Champaign.
If Arizona comes out of that stretch 2-1 or better, they could have a surprisingly good season. If they're 1-2 or worse, watch for them to free fall.
It actually should be a fun season, what with the Cats returning to their normal position of surprising upstarts. (Lord knows they didn't handle the "favorite" role very well.)
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