We have reached one week — only seven days — until the tailgate season is upon us with the Arizona Wildcats kick off their 2018 campaign 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 includes 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.
The season marks some substantial anniversaries. It is the 40th anniversary since the Wildcats left the WAC to join 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.
To catch up on the countdown — which included in-depth analysis and reader polls on The Great Debate of which team was better — 1993 or 1998 — click on this: Arizona Wildcats 2018 countdown to kickoff.
Top 25 developments in Pac-10/12 era
Over the last part of the countdown we are ranking the top 25 developments of Arizona’s Pac-10/12 existence that started in 1978 when it arrived with ASU from the WAC. The ranking will include player highlights, team accomplishments, coaching moves and other off-field developments. If a player is involved, the ranking includes happenings only during the course of that athlete’s time at Arizona.
The ranking up to now:
2014 Pac-12 South championship
Ranked No. 1 in our Top 50 games in Arizona history in the countdown last year.
So much drama and it was not only on the field at Arizona Stadium.
For No. 11 Arizona to claim its first outright title since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, the Wildcats not only had to beat No. 13-ranked ASU but hope that Stanford somehow upset Pac-12 South front-runner UCLA.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t want the score of the UCLA-Stanford game to be displayed inside Arizona Stadium, nor did he want updates to leak to the sideline.
His focus was on defeating rival Arizona State in the Territorial Cup — an achievement that eluded him in his first two years with the Wildcats.
The Football Gods were on Arizona’s side — for once — as both objectives, heck, dreams, came true: The Wildcats overcame the Sun Devils and the Cardinal upset the Bruins.
The Wildcats claimed the outright Pac-12 South title and the right to face Oregon in the Pac-12 title game the following week.
True freshman running back Nick Wilson ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns to lift the Wildcats to victory and bury arch-rival ASU’s hopes for a repeat Pac-12 South title.
“Right after the game when I was walking out to shake Coach (Todd) Graham’s hand, I think either my wife or my son said: ‘Did you know UCLA lost?’ ” Rodriguez told the media afterward. “That made me bounce a little more in the air.”
Arizona, 10-2 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12, emerged as champions of the South with big plays and tough defense when it needed it the most.
Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, slowed by an ankle injury most of the second half of the season, threw for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Samajie Grant. Wilson burst to a 72-yard touchdown run in the second half after running for 218 yards in the previous week at Utah.
Arizona’s opportunistic defense scored on the game’s third play (Anthony Lopez’s 25-yard fumble return after All-American linebacker Scooby Wright sacked and stripped starter Taylor Kelly), made a goal-line stand and forced a turnover on downs after Arizona State started its final drive near midfield. The Sun Devils’ hopes ended at the 40-yard with back Mike Bercovici unable to lead one last charge.
“This is what you live for,” said Arizona safety Jourdan Grandon, who had a key interception late.
What makes Arizona’s win over ASU stand above the Wildcats’ upset over No. 1 USC in 1981 or the Desert Swarm’s dominance over top-ranked Washington in 1992?
No. 5: Game had exhilarating twists and turns
Arizona’s high-scoring 42-35 victory kept fans on their seat at Arizona Stadium and viewers glued to their flat screens at home.
No lead was too safe.
The game was tied three times and ASU threatened to tie it once again on its final drive that stalled at the Arizona 40.
Arizona produced big plays with Samajie Grant catching two touchdown passes and Nick Wilson running for two scores, one a back-breaking 72-yard run that put Arizona ahead 35-21 in the third quarter.
The Wildcats scored off a fumble recovery on Anthony Lopez’s 25-yard return on the third play of the game. ASU responded with a fumble recovery for a touchdown later in the first quarter.
Both teams capitalized on special teams mistakes to put points on the board in the wild back-and-forth scoring that was like a tennis match.
The game was Arizona’s season in microcosm. Five of the nine conference games came down to the last possession with the outcome decided by a touchdown or less. The win capped a thrilling four-game win streak in November — when a team should enjoy its longest conference winning streak — that put Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
No. 4: Drama involved UCLA’s game against Stanford at same time
Ninth-ranked UCLA was firmly in the driver’s seat, only having to beat struggling Stanford at home to clinch the Pac-12 South title.
Rich Rodriguez claims he kept his players off limits to scoring updates of the game while Arizona played ASU. Arizona officials avoided announcing the score or posting it on the scoreboard.
Stanford (7-5) did the unthinkable, not only defeating UCLA (9-3), but routing them 31-10.
The Cardinal returned the favor from the previous year when Arizona upset Oregon to help them finish atop the Pac-12 North standings.
“We knew that this meant a lot to them, but we wanted to come out and get a win for our seniors, for our team,” said Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who passed for 234 yards. “We haven’t lost to them since we’ve been here, and we wanted to keep that streak going.”
No. 3: Historical perspective reaching 10 wins
The Wildcats captured their third 10-plus-win season in school history (1993 and 1998 were the other years) and they won their 10th regular season game for the second time in program history (1998).
Arizona’s seven conference victories were the most in a single season since it went 7-1 in 1998.
The Wildcats improved to 3-1 against Associated Press Top 25 teams in 2014, including a 2-1 mark during the month of November.
It is the first season since 1998 that the Wildcats recorded three wins against ranked opponents. They also defeated ranked opponents in consecutive weeks for the first time since 2006.
No. 2: The win was against ASU
Let’s face it: Any win over arch-rival ASU is one the Wildcats place above others. This one happened to clinch Arizona’s first outright title.
The Arizona-ASU matchup includes 16 games ranked among the top 50 in the Wildcats’ history, according to my rankings. That’s nearly one out of every three top games was played against the Sun Devils.
Two of the bigger victories, in 1982 and 1985, kept ASU out of the Rose Bowl.
Finally, Arizona can look back and say the beat the Sun Devils for not only the Territorial Cup but also a Pac-12 South title.
And for Rich Rodriguez, it was an opportunity to counter against his first two losses against Todd Graham, including a 58-21 beat down to the Sun Devils the previous year in Tempe.
No. 1: The win clinched Arizona’s first outright title
It was not the outright Pac-12 championship, putting Arizona in the Rose Bowl.
But it was the next best thing, claiming the title of one of the toughest divisions (Pac-12 South) in college football.
For Arizona to finish 7-2 in the Pac-12 with better records than UCLA, ASU and USC shows how far Rodriguez took the program in such a short time.
Outright championships and Arizona did not mix in the modern era before 2014.
The Wildcats were labeled co-champions of the Pac-10 in 1993 with a 6-2 record but did not represent the conference in the Rose Bowl because it lost to UCLA, which won the tie-breaker.
In 1973, Arizona tied ASU with a 6-1 record in the Western Athletic Conference, but the Sun Devils beat the Wildcats 55-19 that season to claim the tiebreaker. In 1964, the Wildcats finished in a three-way tie for the WAC title with New Mexico and Utah with 3-1 records.
The 1941 team went 5-0 in the Border Conference but was considered co-champs with Texas Tech despite the Red Raiders having a 2-0 record.
The last outright title in Arizona history was in 1935 and 1936 when the Wildcats went 4-0 and 3-0-1, respectively, in the Border Conference with Tex Oliver as coach.
Although Arizona went on to lose big to Oregon in the 2014 Pac-12 title game, the Wildcats can be assured that no asterisk is necessary next to their name in the Pac-12 South standings. They own that division title.
The best to wear No. 7 …
The best to wear No. 7 in Arizona history? That honor goes to former quarterback Willie Tuitama, who set school passing records from 2005 to 2008 before Nick Foles broke them. Tuitama burst onto the scene as a true freshman, leading the team to a November win over No. 7 UCLA and being carried off the field on the fans’ shoulders. He went on to pass for 9,211 yards, which is now second in UA history behind Foles, and 67 touchdowns (tied for first with Foles).
Wearing No. 7 now …
Two players wear No. 7 now — third-year sophomore receiver DeVaughn Cooper and sophomore linebacker Colin Schooler.
Cooper was a touted recruit out of Narbonne High School in Los Angeles. He played as a true freshman in 2016 but earned a medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending injury in the first three games. He played in seven games as a reserve receiver last season. He showed promise at the end, catching two receptions for 12 yards in the regular season finale against ASU.
Schooler has the potential to be among the elite defenders at Arizona by the time he is through.
As a true freshman last year, he earned Freshman All-American honors by the Football Writers Association of America, USA Today, ESPN.com, 247 Sports and College Football News. He was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He played in all 13 games, including starts in each of the final nine games. He led all FBS freshman defenders with 13.5 tackles for loss, each coming in a Pac-12 game. The 13.5 tackles for loss were most for an Arizona freshman in more than 20 seasons. He finished the season with 95 total tackles, leading the team with 67 solo stops. He added four sacks, a forced fumble, a pass break up, two interceptions (returning them 119 combined yards with one touchdown). One highlight play of the season was at Cal when he broke up a two-point conversion pass attempt on fourth down in double-overtime preserving Arizona’s win. He also had 14 tackles in that game.
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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.