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The Arizona Wildcats are checking every box on the Program Collapse Checklist

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This program doesn’t sustain success well, and Rich Rodriguez still needs to follow up on his recent division title.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 24 and has since been updated.

Since joining the Pac-10 in the 1970s, Arizona has proved it can produce high-level football. The Wildcats have made their way into the AP top 10 in eight of the last 35 seasons, not quite the frequency of a USC, but quite solid.

Seasons with at least one week in the AP top 10, last 35 years
  • 24 — USC
  • 15 — UCLA
  • 14 — Oregon, Washington
  • 11 — Colorado
  • 8 — Arizona, Stanford
  • 6 — California
  • 5 — Arizona State, Utah
  • 4 — Washington State
  • 3 — Oregon State

Of course, spending part of a season in the top 10 isn’t the same thing as finishing there. You can ride a hot streak or a light schedule or one big upset into a brief trip near the top; sustaining it is harder.

AP top 10 finishes, last 35 years
  • 12 — USC
  • 8 — Oregon, UCLA
  • 6 — Colorado, Washington
  • 5 — Stanford
  • 4 — Washington State
  • 3 — Arizona State, Utah
  • 2 — Arizona, California
  • 1 — Oregon State

On average, 47 percent of the Pac-12’s top-10 visitors finished there. Washington State made few trips to the top but stuck the landing in all four instances. Stanford remained in place five of eight times. Arizona State went three-for-five.

Then there’s Arizona. Not only have the Wildcats been able to finish only two of their top-10 trips; in four of eight instances, they finished out of the polls altogether.

  • In 1983, Larry Smith’s Wildcats surged to 4-0 and third in the country. They finished 7-3-1.
  • In 1992, Dick Tomey’s squad upset No. 1 Washington and moved to ninth, then lost its final three.
  • After sticking at 10th, the Wildcats began 1994 4-0 and got up to sixth. They went 4-4 and then, for good measure, went 18-16 the next three years.
  • After an all-timer season in 1998 (12-1 and fourth in the country), they began 1999 fourth, a legitimate title contender. But they got pasted by No. 3 Penn State to start the year, finished 6-6, and didn’t top six wins again until 2008.
  • In 2010, a seven-year rebuild under Mike Stoops peaked; the Wildcats upset No. 9 Iowa and rose to 4-0 and ninth. They then lost six of their last nine and five of their first six the next year.
  • In 2014, Rodriguez’s third year, UA went 10-2, won the Pac-12 South, and finished the regular season No. 9. They lost the conference title game by 38 and fell victim to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. The win total fell to seven in 2015 and three last fall.

A decent head coach can push the boulder up the hill in Tucson, but one stumble, and it rolls all the way back down. Nobody loses it like Arizona, and when it’s lost, it takes a while to get found.

Rodriguez and his Wildcats enter 2017 in desperate need of traction. After winning 11 of 13 in late-2013 and 2014, they have gone 10-17 since. Last fall, a 2-1 start begot an injury-plagued, 1-8 finish.

They couldn’t keep a quarterback, running back, offensive lineman, or defender healthy and plummeted to 96th in S&P+. They saw a strong recruiting class dissolve in a pool of decommitments. Four-star Los Angeles athlete Greg Johnson flipped to USC, four star quarterback Braxton Burmeister flipped to Oregon, etc.

Rodriguez also watched Greg Byrne, the athletic director who hired him, leave for Alabama. He has to be feeling intense heat.

The offense probably isn’t much of a concern. Before 2016’s cavalcade, every Rodriguez offense at UA ranked between 15th and 32nd in Off. S&P+, and there’s reason to assume a rebound is in the works, especially with the experience that last year’s injuries created. Arizona now has three experienced quarterbacks, three intriguing running backs, and seven linemen with starting experience.

The defense remains a mystery, and not the good kind. The Wildcats plummeted to 112th in Def. S&P+ in 2015, and Rodriguez brought in some new assistant coaches, including coordinator Marcel Yates. But they improved to only 105th.

Until you are fired, you have time to turn things around. Arizona should have an exciting offense and faces a schedule loaded with tossup games; S&P+ gives the Wildcats between a 39 and 51 percent chance of winning in eight games this fall. With a healthy two-deep and fourth-quarter execution, the Wildcats could have a lovely season. But when Arizona goes off the rails, it’s generally safe to assume it’s not finding its way back for a while.


2016 in review

2016 Arizona statistical profile.

Every team experiences ups and downs over the course of 12 weeks, but there weren’t very many plot twists for Arizona. Through four games, the Wildcats were a frustrating team with high potential; they lost to a good BYU and a great Washington, they beat Hawaii, and they tried as hard as they could to lose to Grambling.

Attrition began to take its toll when the calendar flipped to October. And things got really ugly.

  • First 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 56% (~top 55) | Avg. score: UA 31, Opp 26 (plus-5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-1.1 PPG
  • Next 7 games (0-7): Avg. percentile performance: 24% (~top 100) | Avg. score: Opp 46, UA 17 (minus-29) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-18.3 PPG

The offense’s scoring output nearly halved, and the defense’s output allowed nearly doubled. After a semi-competitive, 13-point loss to Utah, the Wildcats proceeded to lose their next five games by a combined 170 points.

Injury can explain a lot of Arizona’s stumble, but the magnitude of the stumble was disturbing. The Wildcats salvaged some bragging rights, at least, taking out two months of frustration in a 56-35 win over Arizona State.


Offense

Arizona offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In 2015, we saw a RichRod offense mid-evolution. Rodriguez is known for his work with mobile quarterbacks — Woody Dantzler at Clemson, Pat White at West Virginia, Denard Robinson at Michigan, etc. — but despite decent mobility from quarterback Anu Solomon, Arizona was a pass-first team. Including sacks, Arizona attempted about 40 passes per game, and UA was in the bottom 40 in run rate on both standard and passing downs.

In 2016, we saw a shift back. UA was in the top 40 in run rate on both types of downs; Arizona QBs attempted fewer than 30 passes per game and carried the ball about 15 times per game. Solomon couldn’t stay healthy, but then-sophomore Brandon Dawkins’ running was easily the most reliable weapon.

Of course, Dawkins had to deal with a rib injury and a concussion. Solomon struggled. Third-stringer Khalil Tate threw 45 passes. Hell, fourth-stringer Zach Werlinger threw five.

Meanwhile, no running back could stay on the field long enough to attempt even 77 carries. Nick Wilson, a freshman star in 2014, carried just 55 times in five games, erupting in the season opener and then barely seeing the field. Freshman J.J. Taylor erupted for 265 yards against Hawaii and Washington and was lost for the season to injury. Zach Green ended up getting the most carries but averaged just 3.9 yards per carry until a nice game against ASU.

Hawaii v Arizona
J.J. Taylor
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Oh yeah, and only two linemen started all 12 games. This was a disaster.

On the bright side, there’s plenty of experience and upside to go around.

  • QB: Dawkins, at this point known as much for tackling Miss Arizona as anything else, averaged 8.6 yards per (non-sack) carry and a team-best 6.6 yards per pass attempt. Tate has a cannon and averaged 15.2 yards per completion and 5.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, former blue-chipper and first-round MLB pick Donavan Tate is joining the team after a few years in the minors.
  • RB: Wilson and Taylor combined to average 6.2 yards per carry early in the season before injury, and if they had remained healthy, this offense might have looked completely different. But Wilson has another year of eligibility, and Taylor is now the most proven redshirt freshman imaginable. Plus, Green’s final impression in 2016 was his best, and four-star freshman Nathan Tilford joins the mix.
  • OL: Of the seven players to start at least three games up front, six return. That includes guard Jacob Alsadek, a starter for most of three seasons, and left tackle Layth Friekh.

There’s turnover at receiver, where three of last year’s top four targets are gone. But slot receiver Shun Brown, by far the most exciting member of last year’s receiving corps, returns. He averaged 13.7 yards per target and had huge games against Hawaii and Washington (combined: 12 catches, 206 yards) before the run game fell apart.

There is a distinct lack of size in the receiving corps; no returnee over 6’0 caught more than seven balls last year. But if either a veteran like 6’5 senior Shawn Poindexter or a youngster like 6’4 freshman Drew Dixon or 6’5 freshman Bryce Gilbert can provide an occasional post-up threat on the outside, this offense should have what it needs: size up front, multiple exciting dual-threats behind center, and a stable of dynamite backs. Rodriguez gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to offense, and he has the benefit of experience and options this fall as well.

Arizona State v Arizona
Brandon Dawkins
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Defense

Arizona defensive radar

The Arizona defense, meanwhile, has lost all benefit of the doubt.

Rodriguez ended a long coaching relationship with coordinator Jeff Casteel after a disappointing 2015. The Wildcats dealt with a multitude of injuries, barely got any playing time out of All-American Scooby Wright III, and plummeted out of the Def. S&P+ top 100.

Bringing in not only Yates, but also linebackers coach Scott Boone, was supposed to breathe life into the Wildcat attack. And with Yates’ reputation as a recruiter, it was supposed to liven up the talent acquisition potential, too. But a fresh round of attrition at every level of the defense prevented improvement, and losses prevented a recruiting upgrade.

With uncertainty everywhere on the depth chart, Arizona’s 2016 defense was ultra-conservative; the Wildcats did a decent job of avoiding big plays; they allowed 4.7 gains per game of 20-plus yards (60th in FBS) and 3.1 such passes per game (54th), and that constituted the closest thing they had to a strength.

They were dreadfully passive and inefficient, ranking 113th in success rate and 109th in havoc rate. And now, just as they have compiled a wealth of experience in the secondary, they are starting over at linebacker.

The secondary was the closest thing Arizona had to a strength. The Wildcats were 113th in Passing S&P+, mind you, but the DBs at least made some disruptive plays. That’s more than you could say about the rest of the defense. Plus, they were both banged up and ultra young — four freshman DBs and two sophomores logged at least 8 tackles. Almost everybody returns, including corners Dane Cruikshank and Jace Whittaker (who combined for 21 passes defensed) and safeties Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Isaiah Hayes, Tristan Cooper, and Jarvis McCall Jr. (who combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and 12 PDs).

Considering how much Arizona plays with five defensive backs, fielding a deep secondary might be the top priority, and I think the pass defense could improve with stability and experience. The DBs will need help, though, and it’s not a guarantee that they’ll get it.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Utah
Jace Whittaker
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s top five linebackers are all gone, as are two of three starting linemen. Yikes. Maybe the most proven pieces in the front six (tackle Parker Zellers, end Justin Belknap) are former walk-ons, which is rarely a good sign, even for a school that made a star out of Wright.

Only two members of the front six logged more than 3.5 tackles for loss in their last seasons: senior linebacker DeAndre’ Miller and tackle and Boise State transfer Dereck Boles.

The addition of 310-pound JUCO transfer Sione Taufahema helps from a size standpoint, but there is a defined lack of disruption here. Zellers and Miller each had three sacks last year; all other front-six returnees combined for four. And Boles aside, nobody had more than two non-sack TFLs. That’s not going to cut it.

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona
Parker Zellers
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Despite defensive collapse, Arizona managed to eke out seven wins in 2015 because of offense and special teams. But not only did the offense regress through attrition last fall; the special teams unit also fell apart. Arizona fell from 26th to 114th in Special Teams S&P+, costing the Wildcats a couple of points per game and contributing to Zona’s fall from 3-2 to 0-2 in one-possession finishes.

The Wildcats ranked no better than 74th in any one special teams category, and while young legs contributed to this — punter/place-kicker Josh Pollack was a sophomore, as was kickoffs guy Edgar Gastelum — the return men were upperclassmen, and returns were the weakest part of the unit. Pollack could develop into something solid, but the Wildcats could use some pop in returns. Will they get it?


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Northern Arizona NR 23.8 92%
9-Sep Houston 49 -0.2 50%
16-Sep at UTEP 126 16.0 82%
22-Sep Utah 45 -0.9 48%
7-Oct at Colorado 50 -5.0 39%
14-Oct UCLA 34 -3.3 42%
21-Oct at California 55 -4.4 40%
28-Oct Washington State 40 -2.1 45%
4-Nov at USC 7 -22.8 9%
11-Nov Oregon State 54 0.5 51%
18-Nov at Oregon 23 -12.6 23%
25-Nov at Arizona State 58 -4.2 40%
Projected S&P+ Rk 68
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 44 / 79
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.0 (48)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 42 / 39
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / 0.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (70%, 79%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.6 (-0.6)

From a macro view, Arizona is checking every box on the Program Collapse Checklist.

  • Transfers? Check. Solomon is a Baylor Bear, starting linebacker John Kenny left after graduating, etc.
  • Key decommitments? Check. What once looked like a program-shifting class ended up ninth in the Pac-12 and 44th overall, per the 247Sports Composite.
  • A run of blowout losses? Check.
  • Key assistant coaching changes not immediately panning out? Check.

This doesn’t look good for Rodriguez, but again, you have a chance to turn things around as long as you’re not fired.

While Arizona’s S&P+ projection (68th) is less than encouraging, the number of potential close games on this schedule is staggering. Eight of 12 games are projected within five points, with two likely wins (Northern Arizona, at UTEP) and two likely losses (at USC, at Oregon). Split those eight, and you’re bowling. Win six of eight, and you’re the subject of some “Turnaround!” headlines.

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