Uncertainty might be the catch phrase for Arizona football this season. And uncertainty seems to be how most people view what the UA brings to the table, in this, the first year under head coach John Mackovic.
When a team is picked to finished second to last during the Conference's media day, the likely assessment is that it's going to be a long season, with little in the way of expectations. Basically, it's a statement that says you're gonna be pretty bad. But I would suggest most of the factors that went into Arizona's selection as the Pac-10's ninth place team have much more to do with extraneous issues than the product the UA will field.
At the top of the list is the overall strength of the conference. In my 10 years in Tucson, on paper, this is the best I've seen the Pac-10, from top to bottom. Always a balanced league, in 2001 it's hard to find a bad team. Everybody has a chance to be competitive. Prior to the meteoric rise of Oregon State, anyone who said that in the past was feeding you lip service. Now granted, it might not play out that way. Someone might come along and lay a serious egg, but at this stage, one can make a strong point for each and every team in this conference, at least in terms of fielding a competitive product. The so-called bottom rung of the league suffered from close-call syndrome a year ago. Arizona, selected ninth, lost a four-point decision at Oregon and dropped a three-point outcome at Washington. Washington State, the projected league bottom feeder, lost a slew of overtime games and returns a number of standpoint performers this year.
Arizona has been lost in the shuffle. The northwest corridor has gotten the bulk of the attention of late, and for good reason. Washington appears poised to return to a regular level of prominence, after a near-decade of pretty good seasons. Oregon is the most consistent program in the Pac-10. And Oregon State, after last year's blockbuster season, is the college football story of the new millennium. Basically, there's only so much attention to go around. You know the LA schools will get their share, and with the focus on the northwest on a definitive upswing, it's natural to sort of forget what's taking place in the Grand Canyon State.
Certainly, there is also uncertainty in regards to the coaching change. After all, the UA fields a new sideline general for the first time in 15 seasons. And while Dick Tomey was the definition of consistency, Mackovic is an unknown commodity out West.
In many ways, the lack of attention could bode well for the UA. Mackovic's crew obviously has questions to answer, but this is far from a program in disarray. If it finds some people to step up along the defensive line, Arizona could realistically field the best defense in the conference. And if that's the case, then the UA figures to be consistently competitive. Its linebacker corps could be a monster, and the defensive backfield looks very solid.
Offensively, ball control might be the name of the game. Additionally, Arizona must limit penalties. With uncertainty at the second receiver position, and the question marks that will surround the new quarterback, the UA doesn't appear to have the offensive firepower necessary to overcome mistakes. If Oregon, for example, gets called for a holding penalty on First and 10, it has a fighting chance to get the yardage necessary to keep the drive alive. Arizona does not appear to possess that luxury. But it could prove to be an effective ball-control offense that keeps teams just off balance enough to reap success. And the running game could be very strong.
Additionally, Arizona has a favorable non-conference slate and welcomes many of the Pac-10's heavyweights to Tucson. When the smoke clears, this might be a more successful campaign than people anticipate.
On a completely unrelated sidenote: What is Sports Illustrated thinking? Oregon State No. 1? I posed this query to Ryan Radtke during our almost weekly Sunday Night two-for-one calzone conference at Old Chicago, and he figures it's just SI's attempt at shock value. He feels that Sports Illustrated just does this sort of thing in its quest for some big pat on the back at the end of the season. Well, when/if Sports Illustrated ever gets one of these right, and when/if Sports Illustrated starts to pat itself on the back, I'm all for trumpeting out all the bonehead picks the magazine has made before it lucked out and hit a target in the dark. My guess is that we'll be lining up OSU, along with the 94 Arizona pick, and so many others, as opposed to cheering the publication's prognosticating brilliance.