B y T o m D a n e h y
I'VE COME TO dread this time of year. With the Arizona Wildcat football season set to kick off Saturday, we face the 13th consecutive year of Who-On-Earth-Knows-What's-Going-To-Happen-With-These-Guys?
It's become almost too painful to contemplate. The surprise wins coupled with the even more-surprising losses, the near-misses and always the falling short of the big goal. Following Arizona football is like falling in love with a beautiful woman. Exhilarating and challenging, but almost certain to break your heart at least once. (Or, in the case of the Cats, at least once a year.)
The Wildcats have had only two losing seasons in the last 16 years. They've slowly but surely muscled their way into the elite of the Pac-10 Conference, the toughest conference, top to bottom, in the country. In fact, the Cats have had only one losing conference record in the past 13 Pac-10 campaigns.
On the other hand, they've finished tantalizingly (and/or maddeningly) near the top too many times to count. They've finished a close second or third so many times, their mascot should be Terry Goddard.
Arizona finished second in the Pac-10 in 1984 and 1985. In 1986 they crushed the Pac-10 champion Sun Devils from ASU, but earlier losses to the L.A. schools kept them out of the Rose Bowl. In 1992, they overcame a 1-2-1 start by winning five straight and putting themselves in position to finally reach the Rose Bowl. They proceeded to lose to USC on a late TD pass to the quarterback and then lost to ASU, 7-6, despite punishing the Devils all night.
Two years ago, a late-season loss at Cal (after the Cats had led 20-0 at the half) put them in second place yet again, and then last year, a 10-9 loss at Oregon sent the Ducks to Pasadena and the Cats finished second one more time. If the Cats had tied Oregon, they'd have made their first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl.
For a long time, there was a pattern to the Cats' madness. Win a game they shouldn't, lose a game they shouldn't. Net effect: The loss would hurt more than the win would help, and the Cats wouldn't catch a break. Last year was especially dramatic, seeing as how the Cats weren't supposed to lose any games, but they ended up winning only 67 percent of them.
Over the years, I've tried to cajole the Cats to victory any way I can (remember, I'm not so much a sportswriter as I am a fan with a word processor). I've made season-opening predictions of upset victories. I've made season-opening predictions of non-upset victories. One year, I had other people in town predict the Cats' ultimate victory. Heck, last year I all but guaranteed a trip to the Rose Bowl. Nothing works.
I've picked them to go to the Rose Bowl so many years in a row, I've become virtually indistinguishable from Corky Simpson.
This year is especially interesting in that the Cats are picked by (more-objective) others to finish anywhere between second and seventh in the Pac-10. Even the Corkster is down on the Cats this year. No one picks them to win it all, so naturally I will.
All I have to do is be right once, talk a whole lotta mess, then retire.
I'm even going to try to pick the results of all of the games, just like I always do. Of course, there are (two to the eleventh) different possibilities here...no wait, there can be ties, so there are three to the eleventh different possibilities. If I ever get them all right, I'm going to start buying lottery tickets.
The Cats start off with Pacific. This school's mascot is the well-paid victim. Every school in America wants to open at home against Pacific. Cat QB Dan White and wideout Richard Dice should go wild here. Big Cat win.
Next week, the Cats play at home on Thursday against Georgia Tech. The only sure prediction here is that the traffic is going to be horrible. Imagine a 6 p.m. starting time on a weekday. TV better be paying the UA real well. Cats win this one, too.
Arizona plays at Illinois. This should be a tough game, but Illinois is in the Big 10, so how hard could it be? The Cats may be looking ahead to their big Pac-10 opener with USC, but they should win this one.
On Sept. 23, USC comes to town. Sports Illustrated picks them No. 1 in the country and all of the national magazines have the Trojans winning the Pac-10.
I'm telling you now: Arizona wins this game. They'll stumble later on, but they'll beat USC. I have spoken.
The last seven games of the year include home games with Cal, Washington and Oregon, and road games at UCLA, ASU, Washington State and Oregon State. They'll lose two of those, probably at UCLA and WSU, finishing 6-2 yet again in the Pac-10. But this year, 6-2 is good enough for a tie for first in the conference and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
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