TUCSON, AZ – NOVEMBER 14: Head coach Rich Rodriguez of the Arizona Wildcats reacts on the field prior to the game against Utah Utes at Arizona Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

TSS Top 50: No. 32 Arizona Wildcats

Arizona Wildcats
2015 record: 7-6 overall, 3-6 Pac 12 (defeated New Mexico 45-37 in New Mexico Bowl)

1 Burning Question: Will the 2014 or 2015 Wildcats Show Up this Season?

Arizona’s drop from rising football power to the bottom of the Pac 12 was as sudden as it was surprising. We all knew that the Pac 12 South was going to be one of the deepest and toughest divisions in college football last year. Arizona was the defending division champ and returned outstanding redshirt sophomore Anu Solomon.

It would be tough to repeat as division champions, but Arizona was expected to do more than fifth in the division. It was certainly expected to do better than .500, with five of those wins against the five weakest (by far) teams on the schedule. If not for a late-season upset of Utah, Arizona would not have even made a bowl game.

So what changed during last year? To begin with, the defense was ravaged by injuries. Also, Solomon missed time with concussions. There were problems on offense at times and it felt to outsiders like Rich Rodriguez might have been losing the locker room, but that seems to be a common trend with Rodriguez. He still has talented players returning and a new defensive coordinator, so a return to 2014 levels might not be completely out of the cards, even if it would be very unexpected.

2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to

17.6% – The difference in third-down conversions at home instead of on the road. That’s a crazy discrepancy. The Wildcats converted just over half of their third downs while playing in Tucson. The ratio was just under 1/3 in games on the road or at neutral sites. This was not quite the biggest disparity in FBS last year, but it’s still pretty huge. College football season is short enough that some stats like this could be outliers due to low sample sizes and not particularly meaningful, but this is still probably very relevant. It speaks to either an extreme additional confidence at home or an ability to get rattled on the road–or a little bit of both. It will be interesting to see how these trends continue into 2016, if they do at all.

31 – The number of sacks Arizona gave up last year. This is not a truly awful number, especially as Arizona played 13 games, but it does put the Wildcats in the bottom third of FBS last year. The Wildcats did pretty well in passing situations, with Solomon completing over 62% of passes and throwing 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions, but the 20 sacks he suffered (other quarterbacks took 11) really hurt the offense. The offensive line needs to protect Solomon, or whoever is behind center, better this year.

3 Key Games that will Make or Break the Season

Saturday, September 3rd, vs BYU (in Glendale, AZ)
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: did not meet

Why it Matters: This game kind of doesn’t matter, but after a very weak nonconference schedule last year it will be good to see what, if anything, Arizona can do in quality nonconference play. A loss here really won’t be too bad (though it might make bowl eligibility more difficult), but a win would show that Arizona is off on the 2014 track to start this season.

Saturday, October 8th, at Utah
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 4-1
Last Year’s Result: W, 37-30 (2OT)

Why it Matters: This game is smack in the middle of an absolutely brutal stretch. The Wildcats will face Washington, UCLA, Utah, USC, and Stanford in the middle of the season. Those are five consecutive expected losses, with the only respite being a bye before the Stanford game. One win in this stretch will probably be the difference between making a bowl game or not, and Arizona has had good success against the Utes since Utah joined the Pac 12.

Friday, November 25th, Arizona State
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 52-37

Why it Matters: Because it’s the Duel in the Desert. This is the biggest game of the year for both teams, no matter how the season shakes out.

4 Key Players

Anu Solomon, QB — A team is made up of more than one player, but in Rich Rodriguez’s systems the quarterback will always be the most important. Solomon is an excellent passer who can run very well. He’s had two years to learn the game and grow. He has the potential to be a real breakout star. If he can get protection from his offensive line, he may very well be a #Pac12AfterDark household name this year.

Nick Wilson, RB — Having a strong and fast running back is always a must in Rodriguez’s system, and that’s exactly what the Wildcats have in Wilson this coming year. Wilson was part of a running back committee with Jared Baker last year, but Baker graduated and it is now up to Wilson to lead the charge. Maybe someone else will come up and give the junior a rest sometimes, but the backfield is in his hands.

Cody Ippolito, LB — No one can really replace Scoobie Wright, but someone has to. It might not be Ippolito, but he seems like the best bet at middle linebacker, even if he doesn’t quite have Wright’s speed and ability. We saw how bad Arizona’s defense was last year when Wright (and others) got hurt. Someone needs to step up or we will see this defense get shredded again.

DaVonte Neal, CB — Neal is probably Arizona’s best corner coming into this season. The Wildcats gave up a ton of big passing plays last year. That can’t be fixed in just one offseason, but it will have to be somewhat if the Wildcats want to be even decent on defense this year. Having one lockdown corner is the best path towards doing that, and heading into the fall Neal is the best bet at becoming one.

5 Bold Predictions

5. Solomon will finally be a breakout star

He’s just too talented not to, honestly. Arizona will face some very good defenses this year, including during the aforementioned brutal five-game stretch. Solomon will have plenty of chances to shine. He will show us what he’s made of whether or not his team wins a lot of games.

4. Arizona will go on a five-game losing streak…

We’re expecting this team to be in our Top 35, and losing five games in the Pac 12 South can still make one a Top 35 team. The stretch from Washington to Stanford is brutal. There are very few teams in the country that would win a game during those six weeks. Arizona isn’t one of them.

3. …But the Wildcats will go bowling anyway.

I don’t know if Arizona can win that season opener over BYU, but even so a bowl should be in reach. Grambling St and Hawaii are gimme wins. Colorado and Oregon State will be the bottom of the Pac 12 and will also be pretty easy wins. Beating Washington State will be a little tougher, but Arizona should be a better team, especially after a few close losses to good teams during the brutal midseason stretch. Then it’s just down to the Duel in the Desert for a bowl berth.

2. Arizona will lead the Pac 12 in both sacks and long plays given up

Arizona is going to try a feast-or-famine defense without quite having the talent or experience to do it. This will be an exciting team to watch as the Wildcats will both generate and give up many huge plays per game. Maybe they won’t actually lead the Pac 12 in sacks or big plays given up, but it will certainly feel like it.

1. Rich Rodriguez won’t coach at Arizona in 2017

Yes, his contract still has time left on it. And yes, the buyout can be pretty steep. But Rodriguez has had a rocky relationship in Tucson and hasn’t always gotten along well with his team. Yes, he has a division win and a Fiesta Bowl berth, but after two very disappointing seasons that might not be enough. There will be enough mutual issues that, one way or another, Rodriguez won’t be coaching the Wildcats in 2017 unless this coming season is spectacular.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.