We have reached 41 days until when the Arizona Wildcats kick off their 2018 season under new coach Kevin Sumlin. The season begins when Arizona hosts BYU on Sept. 1 at Arizona Stadium.
To get ready for the upcoming season, All Sports Tucson offers another countdown, which will include memories from former Wildcats, history notes and a look ahead to the season. Think of it as a way to keep Arizona football on the mind in the summer months leading up to fall camp in early August and then kickoff against the Cougars marking the start of the Sumlin Era.
To catch up on the countdown click on this: Arizona Wildcats 2018 countdown to kickoff.
1993 vs. 1998
The season marks some substantial anniversaries. It is the 40th anniversary since the Wildcats joined the Pac-12 (went from the Pac-8 to the Pac-10 then) and also the 20th anniversary of the 1998 team with the best record in school history, 12-1, and the 25th anniversary of the 1993 team that went 10-2 with a win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
A debate among Arizona followers has developed in recent years over which team was better — the 1993 team that brought the program the famed Desert Swarm defense (one of the top units in the history of college football) or the 1998 team that finished No. 4 in the nation and came basically a half away against UCLA from going unbeaten.
My colleague Anthony Gimino wrote about this debate for the Tucson Citizen in 2013.
Both teams were coached by Dick Tomey, the winningest coach in Arizona history (95-64-4 from 1987 to 2000).
We started the debate last Friday when it was 50 days to kickoff. Here are the positions — with reader polls included — we have covered so far:
Today, the position shifts to the return game.
1993 return game: Handling the punt returns were Chuck Levy and Richard Dice and Levy and Cary Taylor were the kickoff returners. Levy was a first-team All-Pac-10 selection as an all-purpose athlete (he was also an accomplished running back) in 1991 and 1993. Levy’s kick return average of 30.3 yards in 1993 remains the highest from the 1970’s on in program history. Ricky Stevenson (1968) holds the record of 37.8 yards. Taylor averaged 29.6 yards a kick return in 1993. Levy and Taylor rank No. 5 and No. 6 in the statistic in school history, respectively.
1998 return game: The highly dangerous Dennis Northcutt and Chris McAlister handled the return duties with Northcutt primarily on punts and both with kickoff returns. McAlister, a cornerback, was a unanimous All-American in 1998, while Northcutt, a receiver, was a consensus All-American. They were skilled at their positions but their returns added to their acclaim. Both are Arizona Hall of Famers. Northcutt’s 81-yard punt return for a TD against ASU in 1999 was the longest in 21 years. He also had an 80-yard punt return against Middle Tennessee State that year. His 2,249 all-purpose yards in 1999 is a school record as is his 18.9-yard punt return average that season. He is second in career all-purpose yards with 5,392 from 1996 to 1999 (Ka’Deem Carey broke Northcutt’s record of 5,483 from 2011 to 2013).
McAlister earned the 1998 Mosi Tatupu Special Teams Player of the Year Award as the nation’s top player in the return game. He set the tone for the Arizona’s 12-1 season by returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown at Hawaii on the first play of the year, tying his own school record set in 1996 against UCLA. He returned a punt 69 yards for a score against Northeast Louisiana and returned an interception 60 yards for a score against Washington State to become only the seventh player in NCAA history to have scored on kickoff, punt and interception returns in a single season. He averaged 38 yards per game in all-purpose yardage, eight kickoff returns for a 29.5 mark, five punt returns for a 20.8 mark and five interception returns for a 12.8 figure.
A look back at No. 41
— The best to wear No. 41 is former linebacker Mark Jacobs, who starred at Flowing Wells before becoming a standout with Arizona from 1974 to 1976. Jacobs unofficially holds the Arizona record with 200 tackles in 1974. The Arizona record book does not officially list the category for most tackles in a season. It does list the annual tackling leaders since 1975 and notes that until 1987 the tackles listed were from observation of “coaches film.” The NCAA did not officially begin to collect defensive statistics until 2000, believe it or not. So a way to look at it: Jacobs unofficially holds the Arizona record with 200 tackles, achieved as a sophomore, while Scooby Wright III has the most in the eyes of the NCAA with 163 in 2014, Wright’s junior season. Only 20 players in the NCAA have recorded more tackles than Wright in a season since 2000. Jacobs supposedly had more tackles than what the NCAA lists as the record-holder today: Texas Tech’s Lawrence Flugence with 193 in 2002.
Jacobs went on to coach at Flowing Wells and was a pillar in the community, with the Sports Park naming itself the Mark Jacobs Sports Park.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.