A year ago, it appeared that Arizona had enough momentum to possibly be in play for a BCS bowl berth. That feeling was only emphasized later when UA started out 7-1 and was right in the picture for the Pac-10 title.
A lot has changed since then. Everyone is already familiar with the team's freefall at the end of the 2010 season and that has left many college football fans questioning just how legitimate of a contender Arizona is for the Pac-12 title in 2011.
Stoops believes his team can compete with anyone in the conference, but UA is going to have to prove it on the field for even its own fan-base to buy into the Wildcats being contenders for the conference crown.
That's what makes these next two-and-a-half months so important for Stoops and his staff. He may not necessarily be on the hot seat, but he certainly faces more pressure (or doubt depending on your perspective) than he has over the last couple of seasons and also has the added complication of having depth issues at key positions on both sides of the ball.
Stoops has been known for his defense over the years. Even in the years where the defense looked to be depleted and short on depth, Stoops has found ways to make his unit play respectable, if not impressive football. While he has seemed to plug holes and alter his defensive scheme to fit his talent, one could argue that he hasn't faced anything similar to what he is heading into in 2011.
There were already depth issues on defense after the conclusion of last season. Defensive end lost both starters and the primary backup, leaving the Wildcats with a converted linebacker with little-to-no game experience and a JUCO transfer who was ineligible until the last few weeks of the season in the lead for the two starting jobs.
Behind those two are a redshirt freshman in Dan Pettinato and a plethora of unprovens and unknowns from the 2011 class. Sure, the fresh faces could provide more than anyone expects them to, but it's too hard to predict something like that happening for a player who has never seen the field at the NCAA level.
Linebacker has had its own set of issues that have depleted it to only two returners from last season. Trevor Erno, a player expected to get in shape and battle for playing time, decided that he didn't like football anymore; R.J. Young transferred elsewhere; Kyle Benson was removed from the program due to academic purposes; and Jake Fischer injured his ACL in spring and will miss the majority of the season, if not all of it.
The Wildcats have brought in Cerritos College linebacker David Lopez as a late addition to the 2011 class and expect him to play right away. Fans should also anticipate seeing plenty of nickel defense from Stoops, as he has been known to utilize this scheme even when he wasn't short on linebackers.
Arizona's ability to use the nickel hit a slight bump when safety Adam Hall injured his ACL. The subtraction of Hall means that the team had to make some adjustments, but the staff feels the players battling for time at the nickel position will be ready to perform at a high level once the season begins. Look for a safety such as Marquis Flowers to be used closer to the line in certain situations due to his combination of speed and power.
Defense has been Stoops calling since his inception into the game of football. He played on the defensive side of the ball in college and in his brief stint in the NFL as a replacement player. He has been coaching on the defensive side of the ball since his first job as an assistant at Iowa in 1986 and he has been relatively successful in doing so since then.
Stoops is going to have to work some of his magic in 2011. He needs to have a successful season in 2011 in order to regain some of the faith lost from the UA fan-base. With the newcomers beginning to show up on campus, it's time for Stoops to piece everything together.
He has a big task at hand. This could very well be the toughest test he has faced with his defense to date. He will need his defense live up to the task in order for Arizona to have any shot in the Pac-12 this season and if there is one thing Stoops is known for, it's developing his defense.