Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 23 Arizona.
Tired of watching ESPN give reach-arounds to the same Southern football powers every year, but don’t want to cheer on the old California powers? Want a campy team to follow that can win you some bets and will actually play in and win some big games? Arizona has you covered.
It didn’t take me long to realize just how good the Wildcats can be again this year. I say “again” because it was Arizona—not USC, UCLA, or Arizona State—that claimed the Pac-12 South title in 2014. On the way to nabbing the title, the Wildcats became the first team to defeat Oregon in Eugene since Stanford did so in 2012.
The Ducks would have their revenge in the Pac-12 championship game in what was a disappointing end to the Wildcats’ year—they would go on to lose the Fiesta Bowl 38-30 to then-No. 20 Boise State when their freshman quarterback took a sack on the 10-yard line with no timeouts and less than five seconds remaining. But despite their less-than-optimal final two games, Arizona had a great season, and it’s going to do the same again this year.
Arizona returns sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon, who wrote himself into the school’s history books last year by posting 3,793 passing yards and 28 touchdowns, both the most ever recorded by an Arizona freshman. Solomon isn’t going to be the next Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota, but he kicks ass and should only improve in his second season. Fellow sophomore Nick Wilson also had a great first year in Tucson, running for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns as the team’s top option at tailback, and he will also be back.
Out wide, redshirt junior receiver Cayleb Jones, a Texas transfer, is back after hauling in 73 catches for 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns last year. If it’s not clear yet, the Wildcats, who boasted a top-30 offense last year with this crew, will almost certainly be a terror in a conference that didn’t have a single defense crack the top 25 in points allowed.
Speaking of which, the Wildcat defense will need to pick it up this year after being a bottom-third unit last year, allowing 28.2 points per game. Arizona brings back half of its defensive starters, including all-world linebacker Scooby Wright. The secondary is a ragtag group made up of a pair of senior safeties and two young faces at corner in Notre Dame transfer DaVonte’ Neal and converted receiver Cam Denson. Of course, with Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley gone from the schedule, the load will be a little lighter on the defensive backfield this year.
Up front, the Wildcats run a 3-3-5, with an undersized 247-pound Parker Zellers at nose tackle, and Reggie Gilbert back for a fifth year at defensive end. The linebacking core is an experienced bunch, headlined by Wright and three juniors in Cody Ippolito, Jake Matthews, and Derrick Turituri.
Scooby Wright is the best linebacker in college football, and it’s not really close. In 2014, Wright led the nation with 163 tackles, six forced fumbles, 29 tackles for loss, and was third in with 14 sacks. He’s going to be a monster this year.
Wright has the athleticism to drop back into coverage with everyone from slot receivers to power backs, but it’s when he attacks the line of scrimmage that he becomes A Problem. Wright’s expert timing means he’s hitting his gap faster than the offensive linemen are expecting, allowing him to take his pick of using a straight burst or polished spin move, and once he’s past the line, the play is as good as over. There are few, if any, players in college football that finish tackles in the open field as well as Scooby, and there are none that have or will do it as often.
Wright will probably hit the 150-tackle mark once again this year, clean up in the postseason awards, and go on to be a younger version of Luke Kuechly, which is not a bad career move.
The Wildcats have the disadvantage of playing in the Pac-12 South, which is rivaled only by the SEC West as the most competitive division in college football. That being said, Arizona did win the division last year behind Wilson and Wright, and with 13 starters back, they have as good a shot as any team to claim the title again.
But if Arizona wants to repeat, it is going to have to avoid making the same mistakes it did last year, namely dropping games to USC and UCLA. The Trojans and Bruins are going to be improved on both sides of the ball this year, and losses to either or both of them will haunt.
Although I’m pretty high on the the California powers this year, I actually like Arizona’s chances to repeat in the South. The Wildcats return their quarterback, running back, and one of the nation’s top-3 defensive players. That’s better than what 90 percent of college football teams can say, and when you’re playing in a competitive league, having multiple guys on both sides of the ball that you can count on the make plays late in a ballgame is an asset that can’t be understated.
But the love has to end somewhere. Arizona, talented it may be, does not have the pieces in place to dominate the Pac-12 in a way that will grant them a coveted spot in the playoff. They’ll go through a gauntlet made up of USC, UCLA, Arizona State, and Oregon, and no matter how solid I believe their core to be, I don’t think they have a team that can go through that stretch unscathed.
Rich Rodriguez, the reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year, is a bit of a dick. When he was the head coach at West Virginia, Rodriguez got the Michigan job offer in December and proceeded to quit early instead of just coaching the team in their bowl game. Tons of coaches do this, but it’s still a dick move. He also equated the struggles he had in his forgettable three-year stretch in Ann Arbor to Hurricane Katrina, and did that thing where a coach leaves his quarterback in the game after they’ve taken a vicious head shot, gotten up wobbly, and spilled their lunch on the field. RichRod seems to have settled in and set up a good program at Arizona, and good for him and his dancing Wildcats, but he’s still a dick, especially when you don’t HUSTLE TO THE DAMN HUDDLE.
Arizona has a very talented core of skill players and the best linebacker in college football, and has the potential to be a 10-to-11-win team this year. Although playing in the loaded Pac-12 South makes the playoff a long shot for the Wildcats, a Pac-12 title most certainly within reach.
Sept. 3: UT-San Antonio
Sept. 12: @ Nevada
Sept. 19: Northern Arizona
Sept. 26: UCLA
Oct. 3: @ Stanford
Oct. 10: Oregon State
Oct. 17: @ Colorado
Oct. 24: Washington State
Oct. 31: @ Washington
Nov. 7: @ USC
Nov. 14: Utah
Nov. 21: @ Arizona State