Going into year three of the Mike Stoops era of Arizona Football it is time to ‘put up or shut up' for the Wildcats. After huge recruiting successes and program improvement everywhere but in the won-loss column it is time for the Cats to take the next step. It all begins and ends in 2006 with the most crucial game of the year.
For the first time in years you can look at the Cats football schedule and actually say to yourself with a straight face that every game is winnable. Sure the schedule is again very tough and the likelihood of the Cats running the table is not very good, but on any given Saturday anybody can beat anybody and in 2006 the Cats have the talent and experience to beat anyone on their schedule. But if the Cats want to go bowling this year the most crucial game is one that they didn't even know they had until a few months ago.
When the Cats finalized a deal to play the BYU Cougars in Tucson it immediately made that game the single most important game on the schedule. Everyone has been looking for a possible upset of USC in the Pac-10 opener as the biggest game of the season but everyone is wrong. While the USC game is no doubt a huge game, especially considering the amount of high level recruits that will be in attendance, but the BYU game has the potential to have many more implications for the Cats and how the 2006 season will ultimately go.
If the Cats win, what happens?
If the Cats can win the game they can set an early tone. They can enter the following week's road game in Baton Rouge with all of the confidence in the world. Confidence is crucial in winning and even in playing well and fighting in a close game. A win over BYU could lead to better things in Baton Rouge. It can lead to a possible upset, which would be huge, obviously, but at a minimum it would lead to the Cats hanging around deep into the fourth quarter. With LSU most likely looking at a pre-season ranking in the top 10, the Cats even hanging around in their house until the end would lead to more confidence for the young Cats.
After the trip to Baton Rouge the Cats come home for their lone ‘cupcake' game on the schedule in the Division 1-AA Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. Win or lose the BYU game, simply put, the Cats will win this game. But winning this game is not the only objective, this game MUST be won and won handily. Another 1-AA team cannot come to Tucson and hang around, even for a half. The game must be put away and put away early so the Cats can rest their key players and play the second and third stringers to get the much needed experience in the depth chart.
Then the Mighty Men of Troy will come to Tucson to kick off the Pac-10 conference slate in its first year of the true round robin format. A win over BYU would put the Cats at no worse than 2-1 entering conference play and they should have all the confidence in the world. Arizona Stadium would be packed, loud and more rowdy than at last year's 52-14 thrashing of UCLA. Everything would lead to the Cats, again at a minimum, hanging with another top 10 team until the end. Even if the Cats should lose to USC but keep it close, the recruits in attendance will still take notice. While a win would be the best scenario, hanging around can have many of the same effects.
So at worst, with a win over BYU, the Cats would be at 2-2 after four games, with two of those coming against likely top-10 national powers. That would leave the Cats with eight conference games, four at home and four on the road. The young Wildcat crew would have confidence, not only in themselves, but also in the systems and the coaches. Everything adds up to the Cats making their run at the bowl game that they desire, which would be great for the program's presence and the recruiting would continue to be top notch. It could prove that the selling points of the program that Stoops and his staff use in recruiting are in fact true.
If the Cats lose, what happens?
If the Cats were to lose the opening game to BYU it could have the potential to set the program back. It could send a signal to the players that things are not getting better and it would shake the always fragile confidence of a young football team. The following week's game would have the potential to get out of hand in a hurry. A young team with shaken confidence going into Baton Rouge to play a very tough top-10 team in one of the toughest places to play in the country is not a scenario anybody wants to face.
A loss to BYU could have the Cats, confidence shaken after back to back losses to start the year, coming home to play SFA. With shaken confidence and less interest in the opponent the Cats could let the 1-AA Lumberjacks hang around for too long, even into the second half. If that were to happen it would only further shake the confidence of the young Cats. They won't lose this game under any scenario, but having to fight at home to beat a far lesser opponent could ultimately shake the team even more.
The Cats could be a team with questionable confidence and a 1-2 record going home to face the three time defending conference champion and top-10 USC Trojans. Like the game in Baton Rouge, after a loss to BYU, this game has the potential to get out of hand if the Cats go in with their ‘tails between their legs'. The Cats could potentially be 1-3 and staring at eight still winnable games but having no confidence and seemingly not much left to play for.
In the end, a win over BYU should have the Cats at no worse than 2-2 after four games with eight very winnable games left and the young team should be full of confidence and the fan base would be in full support mode. On the other hand, a loss to BYU could see the Cats at 1-3 after the first four games with little to no confidence and the fan base would be deflated and already looking forward to the upcoming basketball season for the ninth straight year.
There is no question that the 2006 season schedule is chalk full of huge and important games for the Cats. With games against the likes of LSU, USC, Cal and ASU that is a given, but the BYU game carries much more significance and has many more positive and negative ramifications to it. A win over the visiting BYU Cougars could set the table for what should be the beginning of a special era of Wildcat Football, the era that Cat fans have been waiting for. A loss to the Cougars could possibly set the program, yet again, into a spiral of excuses and even more waiting. BYU sets the tone in 2006 and the Cats better be ready.