2006 Look Ahead: Arizona

When Stanford fans analyze the schedule this fall looking for likely wins and losses, Arizona is a universal head-scratcher. The Wildcats have been woeful for several years now, yet they are suddenly a darling pick in '06 to pull upsets and reach a bowl game. Our scrutiny reveals that the defense is indeed a dandy, but tremendous pressure is being placed on a young quarterback's arm.

Arizona Wildcats

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Arizona – October 14

Last Meeting: Stanford 20, Arizona 16 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Arizona/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 15.3/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 122/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 3.5/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 229/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 57.3/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 9/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 15.5/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 184/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 4.6/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 225/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 58.7/60.8
2005 Record: 7-5/5-6

Second Down: Offense

With a relative lack of standout talent on the unit, and expectations in Tucson at their highest level in years, the Wildcats will live and fall on the arm of sophomore slinger Willie Tuitama.

"With the offense, the emphasis is based on Willie," Coach Mike Stoops said at Pac-10 Media Day.  "Offensively we are searching for our identity to see what we are.  We have never had a quarterback we can build around…  We are going to be good at quarterback."

You do not have to read too far in between the lines to see the pressure on Tuitama's shoulders, and I think those high expectations might prove his downfall.  After his coming out party against the Oregons and UCLA late last season (six touchdowns and zero interceptions, capped by the shocker of the then-undefeated Bruins), opponents will key off on the 6'3" 220 slinger and his top threat, Honorable Mention All Pac-10 senior receiver Syndric Steptoe.  Add in last year's top receiver and Pac-10 co-Freshman of the Year Michael Thomas, and this receiver corps is one to watch in the Pac-10.

At tailback, Chris Henry replaces current Denver Broncos Mike Bell, which figures to be a downgrade.  Bell was a Top 10 running back recruit nationally while Henry squandered potential playing time last year with three fumbles in his first 13 carries (though he did rebound to rush for 113 against UCLA).  Plus, top backup Gilbert Harris has graduated, so the lack of proven talent at the position may put even more pressure on Tuitama's shoulders.

On the line, two starters depart, including right guard Kili Lefotu, the Wildcats' only NFL draftee since 2003.  Even so, talented redshirt freshmen Eben Britton, a left tackle, and Daniel Borg, a right guard, have drawn raves.  With the probable starters at the three other positions all seniors, I expect the line to at least equal its 3.5 yard per carry mark of 2005.

Third Down: Defense

While the offense should be competent if not dominant, the defense is probably third-best in the conference – and trailing Cal and USC is no sign of weakness whatsoever.

"Defensively we have a chance to be better than a year ago," said Stoops in a classic understatement – last year's defense was as good as any in Tucson since 2000.  "We have nine starters [returning], and I think they will all be better."

Okay, the conference has officially been put on alert.  The defense reminds me of the defense that Stoops coordinated in 1999 to carry Oklahoma to the national title.  There are no household names on the unit, but every player is solid.  The defense's greatest strength is that it has no weakness, and opposing offenses will have trouble finding a player or zone to consistently exploit.

While the Wildcats only lose two starters, they were both stars.  Defensive end Copeland Bryan recorded 7.5 sacks and now plays with the Tennessee Titans, while free safety Darrell Brooks was First Team All Pac-10, a Thorpe Award semifinalist and is currently in camp with the Dallas Cowboys.  While the top two playmakers do depart, Arizona's defense does not rely on the big play (only 19 turnovers and 24 sacks last season) and should be steady without them.

Corner Antoine Cason and strong safety Michael Johnson both earned all-conference nods last season and headline the strongest unit on the defense.  Up front, junior Gabe Long transfers in from Fullerton College – and might not even start (ed. note - Long has yet to report in Tucson this week).  Defensive end Marcus Smith, in his sixth year of eligibility, and linebacker Spencer Larsen are two more to watch.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Before 2005, the last time Stanford swept the Arizona schools was the Rose Bowl season of 2001.

- The media pegged Arizona to finish sixth in the Pac-10 in the preseason poll.  That is quite the vote of confidence for a school that last posted a winning record either against conference foes or overall in 1998.

- Arizona was just 1-5 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less, losing narrowly to Utah, Purdue, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State with a 29-27 win at Oregon State.  With better luck and a Pac-10 high 17 returning starters (USC returns a league-low 10, Stanford returns 16), the reasons for optimism are clear.

- However, and this is a big however, where do the wins come?  Their schedule is inverse of Arizona State's in that all the Wildcats' toss-up games are on the road.  In-conference at home, USC and Cal are likely losses, Washington and Oregon State are likely victories and anything could happen against Arizona.  Uh oh.  That leaves UCLA, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon – four teams in the middle of the league – on the road, which could spell more narrow losses.  And the September 9 visit to LSU does not help matters any.  Head coach Mike Stoops does not sound too confident either: "The schedule is set, but it is not conducive to turning the program around."  At least he is a straight shooter.

- I see a squad that, while vastly improved from years past, cannot quite live up to the lofty expectations.  But with only seven senior starters (and just two on defense, the strength of the team), I look for the ‘Cats to have their first winning season since 1998… just not until 2007.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

5-7, 3-6 Pac-10

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