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Arizona with Khalil Tate and Kevin Sumlin will be appointment viewing

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If Sumlin has more first-year magic in him, he and Tate could make this a special season in Tucson.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Arizona State
Khalil Tate
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

[This preview has been updated since its original publication in May.]

The Pac-12 isn’t doing so hot right now. The conference is wrapping up maybe its worst men’s sports year in existence — it failed to get a team in the College Football Playoff, went 1-8 in bowls, got only three teams into the NCAA basketball tournament, and went 0-3 there (but hey, baseball’s going pretty well). People will overreact and paint a picture of impending doom, and there’s no denying that was a cruddy year.

The conference did produce the most pleasant individual surprise of the 2017 season, however, when Khalil Tate introduced himself to the world.

In some way, Tate was a reward for a job well done by Rich Rodriguez. The now-former Arizona head coach brought the Wildcats to bowls in each of his first four seasons — their longest such streak — and signed Tate, a dual-threat dynamo out of Gardena, Cal., at the tail end. USC was recruiting him to be a wide receiver, but Rodriguez offered him a shot at QB.

He didn’t have to wait long, playing a heavy role in October of his true freshman season. But his passing was so shaky — after going 10-for-17 for 177 yards against UCLA and Utah, he went just 8-for-28 the rest of the season — that he entered 2018 as the presumed understudy to junior-to-be Brandon Dawkins. He saw a little bit of action in the first two games, then got hurt.

By the time he took the field against Colorado in early-October, Arizona was in need of a spark. The Wildcats had dropped home games to Houston and Utah, and a bowl bid appeared a far-fetched idea.

But then Tate put together a six-week run unlike anything we’ve ever seen from a college quarterback. Combined, he rushed 96 times (not including sacks) for 1,243 yards — that’s 12.9 yards per carry!! — and 11 touchdowns, and he completed 60 of 96 passes (63 percent) for 957 yards, eight touchdowns, five interceptions, and just four sacks (all against USC). More importantly, Arizona won five of six to secure bowl eligibility.

Behold:

Negative plays hurt Arizona’s cause against Pac-12 champ USC, and Tate’s production trailed off (at least on the rushing side — he threw for 302 yards and five touchdowns in the Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue). But this was a six-week bolt of lightning, and it dragged Arizona back toward “average Pac-12 team” after a two-year funk:

Before Arizona could plan Tate’s 2018 Heisman promotional materials, however, it had to find a new coach. Rodriguez was fired in early-January after alleged workplace misconduct and concerns about “the direction and climate of the football program.”

The circumstances of Rodriguez’s dismissal were murky, but Arizona was landed an accomplished successor. Kevin Sumlin, who started his career as a graduate assistant at conference mate Washington State before moving east (Wyoming, then Minnesota, then Purdue) and south (Oklahoma, Houston, Texas A&M), is back.

Sumlin was fired from A&M after winning 51 games in six seasons (eight more than Rodriguez in the same timeframe). He couldn’t re-engineer his first season in College Station — which featured 11 wins and a Heisman campaign for Johnny Manziel — but he never finished worse than 7-5, either.

Arizona has to hope that Sumlin’s first-year magic continues in Tucson.

  • In his first year as Purdue’s receivers coach (1998), the Boilermakers won nine games and pulled a classic Alamo Bowl upset of Kansas State.
  • In his first year as A&M’s receivers coach (2001), the Aggies improved from seven to eight wins and won their first bowl in six years. (Okay, this one’s a bit tenuous. Go with it.)
  • In his first year as Oklahoma’s tight ends and special teams coach (2003), the Sooners started 11-0 and reached their first BCS title game in three years.
  • In his first year as Houston’s head coach (2008), his Cougars needed a few weeks to get their footing but finished the season 7-2 and scored their first bowl win in 28 years.
  • In his first year as A&M’s head coach (2012) ... Heisman, 11 wins, upset of Alabama, etc.

I’m not going to say the stars are aligning, but he’s got pieces. Not only is Tate back, but so are star running back J.J. Taylor and Tate’s top three receivers (Tony Ellison, Shun Brown, and Shawn Poindexter), not to mention a three-year starter at left tackle (Layth Friekh) and a two-year starting center (Nathan Eldridge).

Perhaps more importantly, a defense that was beset by freshmanitis returns most of last year’s production and might not be quite as much of an albatross — in Tate’s nine games as the lead QB, Arizona allowed 39.8 points per game, which meant Tate had to be nearly perfect. S&P+ projects the Wildcats a friendly 33rd overall, but the schedule is aligned for maximum close-game drama, with six games projected within 4.2 points.

If Chip Kelly’s UCLA isn’t the most fascinating team in the Pac-12, Arizona is.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Louisiana State
Kevin Sumlin
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Arizona offensive radar

Sumlin made a couple of coordinator hires that I’m still not entirely sold on. On defense, he retained Marcel Yates, whose first two years as DC under Rodriguez were horrendous: youth or no youth, Arizona was 105th in Def. S&P+ in 2016 and 115th in 2017. Yates is regarded as a strong recruiter, and he’ll have more experienced personnel around him this year, so we’ll see.

Offensively, he brought Noel Mazzone from College Station. Mazzone is the ultimate coaching journeyman — he has now served as an OC at three SEC schools (four if you give him credit for two different stints at Ole Miss) and four Pac-12 programs, plus schools in the ACC (NC State) and North Carolina public school system (Cary Panther Creek High).

Mazzone tends to do fine. A&M ranked 55th in Off. S&P+ the year before he arrived and ranked 30th and 48th in his two years. Before that, UCLA ranked in the top 30 in all four of his years working for Jim Mora, then fell to 82nd without him. He has worked with quarterbacks both statuesque (NC State’s Philip Rivers, ASU’s Brock Osweiler) and mobile (UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond). At this point, he’s got quite the catalog of if/then examples for different sets of personnel, types of defense, etc.

His task for 2018: maintaining Arizona’s absurd explosiveness while upgrading the efficiency.

2017 Arizona offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Mazzone found a really nice balance with Hundley in 2014. The junior completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,155 yards but still rushed for 89 yards or more five times. Hundley ran an average of 160 times in his three years as a starter but never missed a game, a sign of balance between taking advantage of your mobility and not getting hit an absurd amount.

In theory, Tate’s got more than enough weapons. First, there’s Taylor, the mighty-mite sophomore (5’6, 180 pounds) who averaged 5.8 yards per carry himself, 8.2 over the final six games of the regular season. With the departure of backups Nick Wilson and Zach Green, it’s unclear how the depth chart will take shape after Taylor — there are some fun candidates like four-star sophomore Nathan Tilford (13 carries for 121 yards last year) — but Green’s a good starting point.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California
J.J. Taylor
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

At receiver are two guys who helped Tate drastically increase his pass efficiency last fall and could again in 2018. Tony Ellison and Shun Brown are both smaller slot-receiver types who combined to catch 80 of 114 passes (70 percent) for 1,171 yards, 11 touchdowns, and a marginal efficiency of plus-14.4 percent with strong explosiveness.

If Mazzone’s looking for some bigger targets, 6’5 senior Shawn Poindexter (19 catches for 294 yards in 2017) could be an answer, as might 6’3 redshirt freshman Drew Dixon. Sophomore tight ends Bryce Wolma and Jamie Nunley combined for 34 catches (mostly from Wolma) and 400 yards, too.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Arizona
Tony Ellison (9) and Shun Brown (6)
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Tate and Taylor are the stars, but there’s nice receiver depth. Line depth? We’ll see. Friekh and Eldridge have indeed combined for five years’ worth of starts, but junior tackle Cody Creason is the only other guy with starting experience (six spot starts over two years).

Four-star sophomore Michael Eletise — the only 2016 Arizona signee rated higher than Tate — could be ready to roll, as could others like sophomore Alex Kosinski, JUCO transfer Thiyo Lukusa, or JUCO transfer Steven Bailey. But from a depth perspective, this is easily the least proven unit on the offense.

Defense

2017 Arizona defensive radar

Because of the iffy track record, I wasn’t much of a fan of the Yates hire, but he didn’t have much to work with. After fielding a fun defense centered around Scooby Wright III in 2014, the Wildcats fell apart the next year. They ranked 112th in Jeff Casteel’s last year as DC and have gotten neither better nor worse with Yates. But improving in 2017 was going to be impossible with five freshmen and just one senior among the Wildcats’ top nine tacklers last year.

Pressure will be the key for 2018. Arizona was pretty average on standard downs (72nd in Standard Downs S&P+) but repeatedly let opponents off the hook (119th in Passing Downs S&P+). They couldn’t quite get enough pressure on opposing QBs, but it’s encouraging that their three best players in that regard — rush end Kylan Wilborn and linebackers Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler — were all freshmen.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Arizona
Kylan Wilborn
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomores will run the show at every level this fall.

  • You’ve got Wilborn and tackle Kurtis Brown (who made two of his seven stops behind the line last year) up front.
  • Schooler, Fields, Jacob Colacion, and Anthony Pandy (eight tackles, 2.5 behind the line), plus maybe converted safety Troy Young, stock the linebacking corps.
  • Safeties Scottie Young Jr., Jarrius Wallace, and Antonio Parks and corner Lorenzo Burns all man the two-deep in the back, though Young is suspended for Week 1. Burns was one of the best freshman play-makers in the country, combining 12 passes defensed with 3.5 TFLs in his first year.

Another sophomore corner, Tony Wallace, left the program in the offseason. The Wildcats brought in UNLV grad transfer Tim Hough to help at that position.

There are at least a couple of exciting seniors, too, namely safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (six passes defensed) and corner Jace Whittaker (16 passes defensed). The secondary could be outstanding if the front six helps out. But that’s an “if.”

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Arizona vs Purdue
Jace Whittaker
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Arizona was all over the place. Lucas Havrisik was an excellent kickoffs guy, Tyrell Johnson was efficient in kick returns, Josh Pollack was decent in the place-kicking department, and Shun Brown’s two punt return scores showed obvious upside. But Brown was otherwise drastically inefficient beyond those two scores, and the punting game, though rarely used, was a disaster (126th in punt efficiency).

As long as Arizona’s not punting much, though, I guess that’s a fair balance.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep BYU 76 11.3 74%
8-Sep at Houston 59 3.2 57%
15-Sep Southern Utah NR 24.9 92%
22-Sep at Oregon State 110 15.0 81%
29-Sep USC 15 -3.7 41%
6-Oct California 65 8.8 69%
12-Oct at Utah 28 -4.2 40%
20-Oct at UCLA 39 -0.8 48%
27-Oct Oregon 23 -1.1 47%
2-Nov Colorado 89 14.8 80%
17-Nov at Washington State 41 -0.2 50%
24-Nov Arizona State 57 7.9 68%
Projected S&P+ Rk 33
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 9 / 94
Projected wins 7.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.2 (55)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 45 / 43
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 6.5
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (70%, 79%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.0 (-1.0)

You can talk yourself into Arizona doing some impressive things this year. And with this schedule, the opportunity will be there. S&P+ projects the Wildcats as no worse than a 4.5-point underdog in any one game, and if the defense exceeds its No. 94 projection, a 10-win season is on the table.

Of course, it doesn’t take much spin to see how things go wrong, either. An offensive coordinator change is always an opportunity for regression, and considering the Wildcats allowed 31.6 points per game in wins last year, any slip could bring about a ton of close losses.

All of this makes UA a massive wildcard out west, and you should watch wildcards.

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