Top five football stories of 2011

There were a ton of events that impacted Arizona football this past year. Read on for a closer look at the top five.

The calendar year is coming to a conclusion and it's been another wild and eventful year in the world of Arizona athletics. When it comes to football, there have been numerous noteworthy events that have taken place over the past 12 months. From attrition on coaching staff to a season of misfortune, there was plenty that took place for UA fans to discuss.

Here are the top-five football stories from the year 2011 at the University of Arizona.

5. The entire 2011 offseason.

The offseason was such a rollercoaster that the entire nine-month period was a big enough story in itself. Whether it was coaches departing, coaches arriving, injuries to players, players deciding to depart rather than compete for key roles on the roster, or the anticipation (or fear, depending on your viewpoint) of the ensuing season, the offseason was one big drama that could have rivaled a poor A&E reality series.

Early in 2011, UA assistants started bailing quickly. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh left to take the same position at West Virginia. Defensive backs coach Greg Brown ventured back to Colorado – the program in which he came from – along with defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo.

Then there is the Duane Akina saga. The man who spent 14 seasons from 1987-2000 as an Arizona assistant was leaving Texas to come back and coach the Wildcats' defensive backs once again.

That was the plan at least.

After reportedly not seeing eye-to-eye with Stoops, Akina decided that his choice to leave the Longhorns for UA wasn't the correct one and he snubbed the Wildcats to go back to his previous job. Instead of pursuing another experienced candidate for the opening, Stoops put his trust in 25-year old grad assistant Ryan Walters to coach the secondary. That decision would come back to bite Arizona throughout the 2011 campaign.

Then there were the injuries. UA lost an array of key players throughout the entire offseason. Impact players such as Adam Hall, Jake Fischer, Greg Nwoko and Jonathan McKnight were lost for the season (Hall attempted to make a comeback, but that was short-lived). The Wildcats already had concerns at several other positions, but the losses of these players set UA back even further.

The offseason also saw the unexpected departures of potential key players in R.J. Young, Trevor Erno and Kyle Benson. All three happened to play linebacker and given the severe lack of depth at that position in 2011, each one could have feasibly made an impact on the field.

All of these occurrences combined with the brutal first-half of the schedule made a lot of Arizona fans cringe at what was ahead. Time proved that the UA faithful was right to worry.

4. The losing streak continues.

Arizona concluded the 2010 season on a six-game losing streak that took fans nearly to the level of apathy. The hope was that the Wildcats would rebound quickly in 2011 and jump right back into contention, but that simply did not happen. UA's schedule to begin the campaign was as brutal as the ending of the year prior and the Wildcats extended their losing streak to FBS opponents to 10 games.

Prior to the streak, Stoops had brought himself back into the good graces of the fans. He had brought his career record to .500 and things were looking up for the program. It only took 12 months for Stoops to end up back at the other end of the spectrum as his only victory during the skid was a win over FCS school Northern Arizona. He never rose to the occasion against the tougher foes and even took some embarrassing losses in the process.

The losing streak ultimately did Stoops in and his seven-and-a-half year tenure came to an abrupt end.

3. Arizona fires Mike Stoops.

While the timing may have surprised some Wildcats' fans, not many were taken back that Stoops was relieved of his duties. When you're a head coach and your team loses 10 straight games and you have coaches inexplicably leaving in an abrupt fashion, it's going to send up warning signals in unpredictable directions.

Many thought Stoops would ride the season out, but losing to a previously winless Oregon State squad put the nail in the coffin for Stoops. There isn't any question that Stoops had to handle a very tough stretch of opponents, but losses such as the one to the Beavers and the previous year to Arizona State stood out. In most of the tougher matchups, UA didn't play competitive football.

The interim head coach was Tim Kish, who did okay given the hand he was dealt. The team played more inspired ball at times for Kish and several players saw the field more often in the second half of the season.

Stoops' tenure at Arizona was a roller coaster and Arizona football needed a change. While there were many other problems around the program outside of Stoops, it was him that was ultimately responsible for the product and that product became stale.

2. Arizona beats ASU in Tempe.

Arizona State had been struggling, but UA had just come off a loss to lowly Colorado. Surely the Sun Devils would be able to handle their hated rivals on their home field and keep their Pac-12 South title hopes alive, correct? Well that's not how it all went down.

Kish had his troops fired up and ready from the opening kick off. Arizona stormed out to a big lead early before ASU battled back and looked to get a handle on the game. The Wildcats continued to fight and ultimately took a late lead on a Juron Criner touchdown and were able to fend off Arizona State in the closing seconds. The ending marked the third consecutive year that the Territorial Cup came down to the final play.

The victory felt like redemption for many UA fans, who had experienced arguably their roughest year in approximately a decade. It allowed the football team to salvage something from an otherwise difficult season and started the momentum that brought the football program back into the good graces of the Arizona fan base.

1. Arizona hires Rich Rodriguez.

Athletic director Greg Byrne wanted to turn some heads with the head coaching hire and he did just that when he tabbed Rodriguez as the next man to lead the Arizona football program. There were many concerns surrounding the Rodriguez hire that mainly pertained to his time at Michigan.

After getting to know Rodriguez and hearing his story, the majority of the Wildcats' faithful have grown to like the hire. Despite having a rough go at Michigan, his team's record improved each year he was there. Some questioned his transgressions at UM, but the violations that took place at Michigan proved to be miniscule in comparison to what types of stories have surfaced in the world of college football in the past several months.

What many optimists want to point to when it comes to Rodriguez is his time at West Virginia. Rodriguez is credited – and rightfully so – for taking the Mountaineers football program to the next level. WVU was able to earn big bowl victories, BCS appearances and became one of the most watchable teams in the nation under his guidance.

Being the fringe football program that UA has historically been, many see Rodriguez's opportunity at Arizona as a much better fit than what he held at UM. Rodriguez has found success in building programs up in the past and the expectation is for him to accomplish the same with the Wildcats. Time will ultimately tell when it comes to Rodriguez and Arizona, but for now the hire has been nothing short of a homerun for the UA football program.

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