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1. The world's quietest turnaround
Arizona picked the wrong year to prove itself. The Wildcats improved rather dramatically in 2012, Rich Rodriguez's first year in charge. But with the departure of their starting quarterback, an injury to their No. 1 (by far) receiver, and some rebuilding to do on the offensive line, it was logical to expect a step backwards on offense. And with a lot of tough road games on the schedule, a bit of a step backwards could have been expected.
Things perhaps get a little bit tricky in 2013; while the defense returns nearly everybody of consequence, the offense must replace its quarterback (Matt Scott) and perhaps its stud receiver (Austin Hill, who tore his ACL in the spring). The overall depth should be quite a bit more impressive than what Rodriguez inherited a year ago, but the star power might have dropped a notch or two.
Still, even if Arizona does take a step backwards in 2013 -- a common occurrence following a surge -- Rodriguez found himself ahead of schedule with a great 2012. In a conference where seemingly every program is improving or holding steady, Arizona kept pace last year and could be well-positioned to do so in the future.
Instead, Arizona held steady in the win column (8-5 in 2012, 8-5 in 2013) and improved even further on paper, from 38th in the F/+ rankings to 25th.
The problem, of course: everybody else in the Pac-12 improved, too. A No. 25 ranking would have made you the third-best team in the conference in 2005, the fifth-best in 2008, and the fourth-best in 2011. In 2013, it was good for seventh. The Wildcats had to improve to hold steady, and while they did so, improvement from other teams (including their in-state rivals) prevented them from getting the attention they had earned.
Mike Stoops did a nice job of building a competitive squad in Tucson; Arizona ranked between 21st and 38th each year from 2007-10 but couldn't quite break into the top 20, then lost ground rapidly. An 0-5 finish to 2010 preceded a 1-5 start in 2011, and he was gone. (The Wildcats finished 4-8 and No. 79 that year.) That Rodriguez has so quickly replenished Arizona's confidence and athleticism is remarkable, and in another time, it would be recognized as such. But the conference is full of remarkable hires at the moment, and it will be interesting to see how (and how far) the program continues to move forward in the future.
In 2014, Rodriguez will have a Rodriguez recruit/transfer at quarterback, a well-seasoned offensive line, a dramatic talent upgrade at receiver, and proven playmakers smattered throughout the back eight of the defense. In theory, this could be his best Arizona team yet. But can the Wildcats overcome serious attrition at running back and on the defensive line? And even if they improve for a third straight year, will it matter if everybody else does, too?
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 25|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|30-Aug||Northern Arizona||N/A||35-0||W||34.6 - 19.8||W|
|7-Sep||at UNLV||96||58-13||W||27.6 - 14.1||W|
|14-Sep||UTSA||67||38-13||W||41.8 - 23.2||W|
|28-Sep||at Washington||18||13-31||L||19.5 - 17.6||W|
|10-Oct||at USC||11||31-38||L||43.1 - 31.8||W||12.0|
|19-Oct||Utah||31||35-24||W||30.8 - 20.9||W||11.0|
|26-Oct||at Colorado||95||44-20||W||40.9 - 23.1||W||11.9|
|2-Nov||at California||103||33-28||W||17.4 - 31.7||L||5.3|
|9-Nov||UCLA||15||26-31||L||34.8 - 26.9||W||6.5|
|16-Nov||Washington State||53||17-24||L||21.1 - 28.0||L||2.9|
|23-Nov||Oregon||5||42-16||W||45.7 - 24.3||W||5.2|
|30-Nov||at Arizona State||13||21-58||L||27.0 - 30.0||L||1.0|
|31-Dec||vs. Boston College||65||42-19||W||41.6 - 24.5||W||7.3|
|Points Per Game||33.5||36||24.2||39|
|Adj. Points Per Game||32.8||36||24.3||30|
2. The world's weirdest November
Following a frustrating loss to UCLA on November 9, Arizona faced upcoming home games against Washington State and Oregon. That the Wildcats went 1-1 in those games (with a blowout win and a tight loss) was no surprise. The order of the results, however, was rather confusing.
First, Arizona's offense was slowed dramatically by an all-or-nothing Wazzu defense. The Wildcats averaged just 4.8 yards per play against the Cougars, their second-worst average of the season (worst: 3.7 against Washington). They also recovered just one of the game's four fumbles and missed two of three field goal attempts in a 24-17 loss. Granted, the loss did favors to the Pac-12 as a whole -- it helped Wazzu to reach bowl eligibility -- but it was humbling and frustrating.
Naturally, then, Arizona tooks its frustrations out in a blowout win over Oregon. As one does. The Wildcats drove for scores on each of their first three possessions, built a 28-9 halftime lead, and kept going. They were outgained (yards: 506-482 Oregon; yards per play: 6.3-5.5 Oregon), but the early lead and a series of stops (turnover on downs at the Arizona 40, turnover on downs at the Arizona 6, interception at the Arizona 3) made the difference in a stunning 42-16 win.
And then the Wildcats celebrated this mighty breakthrough win with a 37-point road loss to rival Arizona State.
In general, November was a weird month, one that saw the Wildcats' overall form regress, and one that saw them put together their best performance in years right in the middle.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Arizona 34.0, Opponent 21.5 (plus-12.5)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 6 games): Arizona 31.3, Opponent 27.6 (plus-3.7)
Granted, it wasn't the worst time for their form to drop. The Wildcats probably would have lost to ASU anyway, and while their performance against Cal was far from inspiring, they still won. But a thin defense -- good starting 11, but almost no backups in the front six of Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 -- appeared to wear down a bit and fell from good to average. That's doom in the Pac-12.
The deep parts of the defense appear to get deeper in 2014, but the front six will have to prove its depth. It really didn't last year.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.6%||24||Succ. Rt. +||115.2||19|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||29.3||56||Def. FP+||101.4||41|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.7||35||Redzone S&P+||105.6||39|
|Q1 Rk||37||1st Down Rk||23|
|Q2 Rk||44||2nd Down Rk||62|
|Q3 Rk||42||3rd Down Rk||36|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Jesse Scroggins||6'3, 208||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)|
|Connor Brewer||6'2, 196||So.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Anu Solomon||6'2, 198||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)|
|Khari McGee||6'3, 207||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jerrard Randall||6'1, 179||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Brandon Dawkins||6'4, 205||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
3. The world's first 6-QB formation
When Rodriguez lost Matt Scott to graduation following 2012, he opened up quite a quarterbacks derby. Senior B.J. Denker ended up defeating Louisiana Tech transfer Nick Isham, USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, and youngsters Javelle Allen and Anu Solomon for the job. It was apparently the right choice -- Denker wasn't as strong a passer as Scott, but he was a better runner and served as a tremendous complement for all-world back Ka'Deem Carey. But it assured that Rodriguez would be going through another open competition a year later.
Denker graduated, Allen was dismissed, and Isham transferred a second time when it became clear he wasn't winning the job. But somehow, despite the departure of three of last year's five competitors, the battle royale has even more contestants this time around. Scroggins is still in Tucson, as is Anu Solomon (now a redshirt freshman). Fellow RSFR Khari McGee could be a factor (and could end up playing a few other positions as well), JUCO transfer Jerrard Randall is athletic, and somehow Texas transfer Connor Brewer is just a sophomore. Throw in true freshman Brandon Dawikins, and you've now got a six-way battle for the starting job.
The smart money appears to be on either Scroggins, Brewer, or Solomon. (My guess is Scroggins.) In a Rich Rod offense, though, the starter might not really matter; he's probably going to be pretty successful regardless.
|Jared Baker||RB||5'8, 188||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||27||127||0||4.7||4.6||33.3%|
|Terris Jones-Grigsby||RB||5'7, 182||Sr.||NR|
|Zach Green||RB||5'10, 220||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Tyrell Johnson||RB||5'7, 154||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Nick Wilson||RB||5'10, 195||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
4. A plug-and-play run game
There's even smarter money on a running back putting up big numbers, even if we don't really know who the running back will be. Arizona RBs had 446 carries last year, 34.3 per game. Ka'Deem Cary, now a Chicago Bear, had 350 of them, and primary backup Daniel Jenkins had another 64. In all, just 6.1 percent of last year's carries return, all from junior Jared Baker. Baker, senior (and special teams all-star) Terris Jones-Grigsby and three freshmen (including incoming four-star Nick Wilson) could all see carries.
In theory, this level of turnover is scary. But when your head coach has Rodriguez's reputation for offensive proficiency, and when a strong offensive line returns five players with starting experience (104 career stats) and two three-year starting tackles, it's hard to worry too much.
Carey was one of the most efficient backs in the country, and it's fair to assume that Arizona won't have a top-15 Rushing S&P+ ranking this time around. But how far do you really expect it to fall, especially with that line?
|Austin Hill (2012)||SLOT||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||118||81||1364||68.6%||25.7%||66.9%||11.6||N/A||11.7||167.0|
|Nate Phillips||SLOT||5'7, 177||So.||2 stars (5.4)||76||51||696||67.1%||21.8%||67.2%||9.2||91||8.5||90.4|
|Samajie Grant||WR||5'9, 173||So.||3 stars (5.6)||74||47||373||63.5%||21.2%||65.7%||5.0||-200||5.2||48.5|
|Garic Wharton||WR||5'11, 169||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||32||17||291||53.1%||9.2%||64.3%||9.1||63||8.7||37.8|
|David Richards||WR||6'4, 214||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||25||15||148||60.0%||7.2%||42.9%||5.9||-40||6.6||19.2|
|Johnny Jackson||SLOT||5'10, 180||Jr.||NR||18||12||124||66.7%||5.2%||37.5%||6.9||-19||6.5||16.1|
|Trey Griffey||WR||6'3, 191||So.||3 stars (5.6)||17||14||170||82.4%||4.9%||50.0%||10.0||19||10.0||22.1|
|Cayleb Jones||WR||6'3, 204||So.||4 stars (6.0)|
|DaVonte' Neal||SLOT||5'10, 176||So.||4 stars (5.9)|
|Josh Kern||TE||6'5, 206||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Cam Denson||WR||6'1, 170||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Trevor Wood||TE||6'6, 240||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
5. The world's most sudden talent upgrade
Predicting the level of success for Arizona's offense in 2014 depends almost entirely on assumptions. Do you assume a step backwards with that much turnover in the backfield? Do you assume a step forward with that much talent and experience on the offensive line? And do you assume that four-star transfers can make at least a minor impact?
When the 2013 season ended, the ceiling for Arizona's receiving corps immediately improved. Austin Hill, 2012's breakout star, was already mostly healed from his knee injury and should be 100 percent on August 29. Last year's two leading receivers, Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant, became sophomores, as did Trey Griffey. And perhaps most importantly (when talking about upside), two four-star sophomore transfers -- Cayleb Jones (Texas) and DaVonte' Neal (Notre Dame) -- became eligible.
For a run-first offense, Arizona now has a potential embarrassment of riches. Jones and Neal have not yet lived up to blue-chip potential, but they probably won't have to. If Hill returns to 2012 form and Phillips finds a new role, Arizona already returns two players who averaged 9+ yards per target their last time on the field. Throw in senior Garic Warton and Griffey, and you've got some exciting options already. If either Jones or Neal is ready to become a quality No. 2 or No. 3 target, the Arizona passing game could be quite successful.
That doesn't seem too much to ask, especially if, again, you assume the running game will be fine.
|Mickey Baucus||LT||6'8, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||38|
|Fabbians Ebbele||RT||6'8, 311||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||37|
|Cayman Bundage||LG||6'2, 267||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||14|
|Steven Gurrola||C||6'2, 291||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13|
|Lene Maiava||RT||6'5, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||2|
|Jacob Arzouman||LT||6'5, 266||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Zach Hemmila||LG||6'3, 305||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0|
|Carter Wood||C||6'2, 272||Jr.||NR||0|
|Faitele Faafoi||RG||6'4, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Jacob Alsadek||RG||6'7, 313||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Kaige Lawrence||OL||6'3, 287||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Jordan Poland||OL||6'8, 340||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.6%||27||Succ. Rt. +||109.4||31|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||28.8||94||Off. FP+||100.5||55|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.8||27||Redzone S&P+||107.2||36|
|Q1 Rk||34||1st Down Rk||31|
|Q2 Rk||13||2nd Down Rk||27|
|Q3 Rk||29||3rd Down Rk||50|
6. Speed kills
Arizona had no short-yardage push up front and couldn't rush the passer. The Wildcats weren't mainstays in the offensive backfield and couldn't necessarily win the line when they needed to.
They also ranked 27th in Def. F/+.
Coordinator Jeff Casteel really does have the best possible complement to Rodriguez's speedy offense: a speedy defense. The two were separated for four years when Rodriguez left for Michigan and Casteel stayed behind, but they rejoined in Tucson, and the results have been thus far encouraging. (They've been less encouraging for West Virginia, which completely fell apart defensively in 2012 when Casteel left.)
Casteel's 3-3-5 is at its best when the line is making plays, but it needs speed above all else, and that's something Arizona has in abundance. It also has one of the country's most experienced trios of defensive backs. There's at least one proven defender at each level of the defense, and there's speed to burn. Things probably won't improve further until the line improves, but the top 30 isn't the worst place in the world to be.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Reggie Gilbert||DE||6'4, 261||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||24.5||3.2%||7.0||4.0||0||0||1||0|
|Dan Pettinato||DE||6'4, 271||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||10||6.5||0.9%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dwight Melvin||NT||6'1, 272||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Calvin Allen||DE||6'6, 259||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Luca Bruno||DE||6'4, 259||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jack Banda||DE||6'3, 217||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jeff Worthy||NT||6'2, 282||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Jerod Cody||DE||6'7, 277||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Marcus Gfiffin||NT||6'3, 296||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
7. Opening a new box of defensive linemen
In Reggie Gilbert, Arizona does have one proven entity; he's a little small to play end on a three-man line, but he's not exactly 240 pounds. He's a keeper.
The rest of the line returns 6.5 tackles from last year. Both primary tackles, Tevin Hood and Kirifi Taula, are gone. So is Sione Tuihalamaka, the leading play-maker on the line. There are some exciting prospects here -- not least of all, incoming four-star freshman Marcus Griffin -- but they're all either young or smaller than preferred. And the team's two leading tacklers, linebackers Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers, are also gone.
The line was undersized last year, too, but there was enough experience and speed elsewhere to make sure runners didn't get too far downfield. But with four starters gone from the front six, a lack of depth could become crippling. Last year's backups barely played, and to avoid some pretty significant regression, some unknowns will have to become knowns awfully quickly.
There's hope; sophomore Scooby Wright might have been UA's best play-maker against the run in 2013, and reserves Derrick Turituri and Keoni Bush-Loo managed four sacks in minimal opportunities. But Arizona goes from experienced and thin to inexperienced and thin; that doesn't tend to work out incredibly well.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Scooby Wright||MLB||6'1, 230||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||64.5||8.5%||9.0||0.0||1||1||0||0|
|Derrick Turituri||SLB||6'1, 252||So.||2 stars (5.4)||13||9.0||1.2%||2.5||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Sir Thomas Jackson||LB||6'0, 221||Jr.||NR||12||7.0||0.9%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Hank Hobson||MLB||6'3, 227||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||6.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Keoni Bush-Loo||SLB||6'4, 224||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||5.5||0.7%||1.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|DeAndre' Miller||WLB||6'3, 225||So.||3 stars (5.7)||13||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jake Matthews||WLB||6'3, 214||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Antonio Smothers||SLB||6'2, 237||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Marquis Ware||LB||6'2, 210||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Jamardre Cobb||LB||6'2, 215||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jared Tevis||BANDIT||5'10, 195||Sr.||NR||11||71.0||9.3%||4||1||1||2||3||0|
|Jourdon Grandon||FS||6'0, 195||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||63.5||8.3%||0||0||2||6||1||0|
|Tra'Mayne Bondurant||SPUR||5'10, 198||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||59.0||7.7%||7||2||4||5||1||0|
|Jonathan McKnight||CB||5'11, 171||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||49.0||6.4%||1||0||2||8||0||0|
|William Parks||BANDIT||6'1, 191||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||25.5||3.3%||1||0||2||5||0||0|
|Anthony Lopez||SPUR||5'11, 208||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||11.5||1.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tellas Jones||BANDIT||6'0, 192||So.||NR||12||11.0||1.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Devin Holiday||CB||5'10, 156||So.||3 stars (5.6)||13||6.5||0.9%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Yamen Sanders||S||6'4, 196||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamar Allah||FS||6'1, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Blake Brady||S||5'11, 194||Sr.||NR||13||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Patrick Glover||CB||6'1, 196||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jarvis McCall||CB||6'2, 194||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Rodney Carr||CB||6'0, 183||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
8. Just give this secondary a little bit of help
Seniors Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Jonathan McKnight, and Jourdon Grandson have each been mainstays for three years (McKnight was a reserve in 2010 before missing 2011 with injury), Jared Tevis for two. This foursome is experienced and talented enough to give the front six some more leeway, even with the departure of corner Shaq Richardson.
Bondurant is especially perfect for this system. He's 5'10, 200 pounds but plays 6'2, 215, charging up to the line of scrimmage to make plays, then dropping back to pick off a pass. In three years, he has logged 22 tackles for loss, thre sacks, seven interceptions, 18 break-ups, and four forced fumbles. He's a wrecking ball.
Arizona returned 11 starters in 2013. When that happens, you're almost guaranteed to return but a few the next year. That convergence of experience is rare and probably means you're playing a lot of seniors. But the secondary still returns four of five primary players, and the backups got a lot more playing time than did those in the front six. The secondary was the strength of the D last year and should be just about as good; the Wildcats' fate, then, could be dictated by how much a younger, equally thin front six gets pushed around.
|Drew Riggleman||6'2, 207||Jr.||56||40.1||4||11||18||51.8%|
|Samajie Grant||KR||5'9, 173||So.||10||19.3||0|
|Jared Baker||KR||5'8, 188||Jr.||9||23.3||0|
|Johnny Jackson||PR||5'10, 180||Jr.||13||8.5||0|
|Nate Phillips||PR||5'7, 177||So.||10||5.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||107|
|Field Goal Efficiency||92|
|Punt Return Efficiency||113|
|Kick Return Efficiency||115|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||104|
9. A special teams mess
In his last five seasons as a head coach (2008-10, 2012-13), Rich Rodriguez has been in charge of only one decent special teams unit -- his 2009 Michigan unit ranked 44th. At Arizona, his units have ranked 93rd (2012) and 106th (2013).
When your defense faces some potential efficiency problems, you need to make up the field position difference on special teams, and while punter Drew Riggleman and all return men return, punt coverage was only decent, and returns were awful last year. Barring some major contributions from newcomers, this unit doesn't inspire confidence.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|25-Oct||at Washington State||68|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||7.8% (41)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||32|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||4 / -1.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (6, 6)|
10. Somewhere between tough out and South sleepers
It takes three "ifs" to turn Arizona into a sleeper in the Pac-12 South:
- If the new starting quarterback can one-up B.J. Denker.
- If the new stable of running backs can follow blocks well.
- If the defensive line doesn't become a total liability.
Austin Hill's return, combined with lovely coaching, a well-seasoned offensive line, and another potentially great secondary, assures that Arizona will be pretty good, certainly good enough to beat the six teams projected 64th or worse on the schedule (or go 5-1 in those games and pull an upset) and send the Wildcats bowling again. (It will also be good enough to have won the division in 2011, but things change.)
With Arizona State, Washington, and USC all coming to Tucson, UA could do quite a bit of damage if it figures out how to improve once more. I don't expect that, but I didn't really expect it last year either.
Arizona's progress is worth watching. The Wildcats weren't as far along as ASU in 2013 and certainly aren't recruiting at a UCLA level, but the South balance of power appears to be in flux enough that if Rodriguez keeps putting top-25 teams on the field and recruiting well, the Wildcats could break through and win a division title at some point.
That point won't be 2014, but Arizona's fun and dangerous enough to watch regardless.