Playing The Field

Pigskin Prognostications From The Peanut Gallery

By Tom Danehy

THINGS GUARANTEED TO happen this football season: The Arizona Wildcats won't break nearly as many hearts as they have in years past. This is mostly due to the almost universal lowering of expectations among diehard fans and casual observers.

And this wasn't a "10 percent off" mark-down. We're talking "Storewide Clearance: 75 percent off the lowest marked price" mass migration. It's hard to believe we're only four years removed from the Most Exciting Team of All Time and its bastard son, 1994's The Most Disappointing Team of All Time.

Danehy The 11-11 mark over the past two years has sorta sucked the life out of Wildcat fans. Mention the home games with Pac-10 favorites Stanford and Washington on October 11 and 18, and most Cats fans' eyes will glaze over and they'll think of those dates as mere bookends to the Midnight Madness start of men's basketball practice on Friday night, October 17.

The truth is out there, as are Arizona's chances of making a bowl game. If they stay healthy, avoid bonehead plays (by both players and coaches), and catch a few breaks, they could do surprisingly, spectacularly well.

Last year's 5-6 mark is deceptive in that there were three losses which could have (and should have) been wins. If the Cats had won even two of those three (one-point losses at Iowa and Cal and a seven-point loss at USC), folks would be enthusiastic about this year and they would have discounted 1995's 6-5 mark as a blip on the screen.

Instead, back-to-back seasons of 6-5 and 5-6 connote a trend. One is one, but two are some.

I look for them to be 7-4 with a renewed emphasis on defense and QB Keith Smith just driving opposition defenses nuts. Unfortunately, I also see them perhaps losing a game they shouldn't (San Diego State?), and maybe winning a surprise one as well (Ohio State? Stanford?).

The key in any football season is to win the games you're supposed to and also win the tough, toss-up games. Last year they lost all three of them. This year they also have three (UCLA, Oregon, and Washington State); all three are conference games and all three are on the road. These are the games which will determine whether the Cats have a winning season, not to mention whether anybody will bother leaving Midnight Madness early to get enough sleep to be able to make the 12:30 p.m. kickoff time for the Washington game later that day.

THE DALLAS COWBOYS are going to bite, "bite" being the crime du jour these days. Actually, this may be a breakthrough year for all us Cowboy haters. Last year, Dallas had only the 24th-best offense in the 30-team National Football League, finishing behind such toothless wonders as the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Jets, and the Arizona Cardinals in that category.

The Dallas defense kept them in games, finishing third-best in the NFL. But that defense has been decimated by retirement, injuries, free-agency defections, and (what a surprise!) drug suspensions.

The Cowboys are still talented at a lot of positions, but their lack of depth, continuing off-field embarrassments, plus the tenuous hold Barry Switzer has on the team (and his job) make them candidates for a big fall.

Look at it this way. Their best offensive player is an unrepentant whoremonger and drug user; their best defensive player will only play half a season and, having just found the Lord, it's a big question mark as to whether he'll still play as well without the bluster and cockiness; and the quarterback was ready to retire in disgust over the off-season. This is no longer America's Team (if it ever was). It's America's Most Wanted's team.

I've always hated the Dallas Cowboys and haven't been real fond of their smug, front-running fans. Still, I used to have a begrudging respect for the Roger Staubach and Danny White teams. But respect went up in crack smoke and now I just despise them.

Several publications and six of the seven USA Today writers pick the Cowboys to win the NFC East this year, but I'm telling you they're wrong. The Cowboys have a tough (but not brutal) schedule, one which could leave them 9-7, out of the playoffs, and able to do some last-minute Christmas shopping for drugs and weapons.

AMPHI WILL AGAIN be the class of local high-school football, along with Sahuaro, Canyon Del Oro, and a team which we won't mention because they're always afraid to play Amphi, and therefore shouldn't appear in the same sentence as the word "class."

OTHER PREDICTIONS: TWO local high-school teams will do really well in the Class 4A ranks, even though they should be in the 5A. The Arizona Interscholastic Association, a Phoenix-based group of clods masquerading as a governing body for prep sports, divides schools into classes according to attendance figures reported by the schools. It's not unheard of for schools to fudge the figures a bit to keep from having to play up at the next level.

Next time those figures come out, be amazed at how a couple schools in particular come up just short year after year, despite being located in some of the fastest-growing parts of town.

TWO MARCHING BANDS will rumble at Band Day at the UA. I can hear the announcer now.

"Corona del Sol's piccolos are attacking the flank of Marana Mountain View's drum section. Punches are being thrown, instruments are flying, and the field is littered with funny hats. Oh, the humanity. Oh, the horn section."

Actually, that probably won't happen. But I'd pay to see it.

FINALLY, THERE'S ONLY one sure bet this year. Arizona is going to spank ASU. The Devils are going to wish they had some of those gratuitous TDs they piled on the Cats last year. ASU had a dream season in 1996. They caught a huge break in beating Washington early, then should have lost at UCLA. They've got nothing left for this year after nearly 80-percent of last year's starters either graduated (yeah, right!), used up their eligibility, and/or entered Witness Protection. TW

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