2005 Look Ahead: Arizona

Stanford fans have been clammoring to bring Arizona back onto the schedule, after the Cardinal missed the Pac-10's weakest team the last two seasons. Confidence is rising in Tucson after a win over the rival Sun Devils to wrap up 2004, but are the tools in place for the Wildcats to move out of the conference cellar?

Arizona Wildcats

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Arizona – October 15

Last Meeting: Stanford 16, Arizona 6 ('02)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Arizona/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 7/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 118/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 171/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 7/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 124/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 255/249
2004 Record: 3-8/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 4-7/4-7

Second Down: Offense

Arizona is the only Pac-10 squad never to play in a Rose Bowl.  With the most anemic offense in the conference, 2005 isn't going to be the breakthrough season.

Last year's Wildcat offense gained under 300 yards per game, placing only 95th in the country.  While Stanford and Washington, the other Pac-10 teams that struggled offensively last season, figure to be much more productive, similar offensive improvement may not arrive in Tucson until next season, when eight of this year's starters will return.

In a conference replete with future NFL stars at quarterback, Wildcat slinger Richard Kovalcheck has a far way to go.  As a true freshman last year, he completed fewer than 50% of his passes and threw more touchdowns than interceptions.  While many quarterbacks make a quantum improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons, Kovalcheck may be limited by the lack of talent surrounding him offensively.

The only Wildcat offensive starters who would start at a Top 25 program are senior running back Mike Bell, coming off 4.6 yards per carry in 2004, senior center Kili Lefotu and sophomore right tackle Peter Graniello.  If he stays healthy, Bell should top 1,000 yards this season, despite running behind a line that loses its two best members from last season.

The team may have to ride Bell on offense though, as the receiving talent is far more questionable.  After a spectacular spring, JUCO transfer junior B.J. Vickers has fallen back to earth in the fall, but he should still headline a receiving corps that had nary a 500-yard receiver last season and suffered heavily from the "dropsies".  To be fair, Kovalcheck now enters his second season and the receivers did drastically underperform last season, so 2004 has set the bar low enough that the wide-outs have the potential to pleasantly surprise this season.

Third Down: Defense

Health and unproven potential are the huge question marks nagging the front seven.  On the other hand, the secondary should almost assuredly be the strongest unit on this team.

On the line, senior defensive ends Marcus Smith and Copeland Bryan both have tremendous upside that they've never fully displayed in their Wildcat careers.  Four guys, including JUCO transfer junior Byron Smith, figure to see the majority of playing time at the defensive tackle positions, provided they can stay healthy, which has not been the case the past several seasons.  Depending on whether the tackles can stay healthy and ends can finally put it together, the line could either wildly exceed or fall short of its preseason expectations.

The linebackers appear to be the defensive liability.  Three linebackers, including projected starter senior Randy Sims, are currently injured, which may force the coaching staff to play talented but raw underclassmen (e.g. redshirt freshman Ronnie Palmer) earlier than ideal.  Early indications are that the coaches may run nickel and dime packages more frequently than in seasons past to lessen the impact of the injuries to the linebacking corps.

The strength of the secondary provides a night-and-day contrast with the issues dogging the rest of the defense.  All four starters return, including Second Team All Pac-10 senior free safety Darrell Brooks, the team's leading tackler in 2004.  In fact, Arizona's three leading tacklers last year all return to the secondary this season, which speaks to both the tackling strength of Brooks, senior strong safety Lamon Means and sophomore cornerback Antoine Cason... as well as the weakness at positions in front of them on the Arizona defense.  After doing a decent job as freshmen starters last season, Cason and fellow sophomore cornerback Wilrey Fontenot figure to benefit from last year's experience and improve tremendously.  JUCO transfer Michael Johnson, who was rated one of the top five JUCO cornerbacks in the country, will add a spark in nickel and dime situations.  This secondary will be called upon to keep Arizona in games, and may be capable of doing just that.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Stanford has topped 50 points in its last two trips to Tuscon (1999 and 2001).  Perhaps then it's no surprise Arizona is only 4-20 in home Pac-10 games since 1999.  Even under former head coach Buddy Teevens, Stanford fared a much stronger 4-8 versus conference opponents at home.

- In their first home game in nearly a month, Arizona hosts Stanford in the middle of a brutal four-week stretch.  Their three other games: at Cal, at USC and versus Oregon.  The Pac-10 did Arizona no favors, as the only conference team the Wildcats duck is Washington State.

- Arizona's out-of-conference schedule is similarly difficult, featuring a trip to Utah, a perfect 12-0 last year, and a visit from Purdue, whom some are predicting to win the Big 10 and possibly run the table this season.

- Considering the difficult slate, the fact that Vegas expects four wins out of this squad is quite the vote of confidence.  Hard to see how Arizona gets to four victories without a "W" against Stanford; outside of home contests against Northern Arizona, Washington, and Stanford, the Wildcats should be significant underdogs in every other game.  Even if Arizona won all three of those three games, they'd still be facing an uphill climb to reach that four-win plateau.

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