A day closer to the Arizona football season means some people may be thinking about how long it will take before their optimism will be wiped away.
These are some cynical times for the program given the lack of staying power for the program competing at the upper-echelon of the Pac-12, and the general I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it mindset of Arizona’s fans. No, the Wildcats, still without a Rose Bowl berth and an outright conference championship in almost 80 years, are not the lovable-loser kind.
Fans are more amused by the shortcomings than being a cult that really cares. Yesterday’s installment of this countdown has some fans looking forward to the women’s and men’s basketball season and that of the club hockey team at Arizona rather than the football season.
With all this indifference from Arizona fans, a 3-0 start in the non-conferece portion of the schedule is imperative to bring some belief back to the program. Anything else will fuel the non-believers.
One fan, a former player who went on to an NFL career with the Denver Broncos — lineman Mike Freeman — responded to my question on Facebook and Twitter about what Arizona fans are looking forward to the most with this response:
Arizona opens with Hawaii on Aug. 24 followed by home games against NAU on Sept. 7 and Texas Tech on Sept. 14. After those games are winnable encounters with UCLA at Arizona Stadium to start the Pac-12 season on Sept. 28 and at Colorado on Oct. 5.
A 5-0 start is not out of the realm of possibility. That could carry Arizona into a bowl game with only one more win necessary when the Wildcats enter the difficult phase in the second half of their season with games against Washington (at home), USC, Stanford, Oregon, Utah (at home) and ASU.
Arizona might be only favored against Oregon State at Arizona Stadium on Nov. 2 in the second half of the season.
Fast starts do not always guarantee success. The greatest example is Dick Tomey’s last season of 2000 when Arizona started 5-1 (including wins at Utah, Stanford and No. 22 USC) and went on to lose its last five games. Also, in 2010, the year before Mike Stoops was fired, Arizona started 7-1 and reached No. 13 in the AP Top 25 poll before collapsing with five consecutive losses.
Tomey was in his 14th season and Stoops is seventh when this happened.
Competitive one-on-one battles between cornerbacks and wide receivers.
QBs shown: Grant Gunnell, Khalil Tate pic.twitter.com/n5QnvA6blE
Something similar could happen this season, but with Kevin Sumlin only in his second season, he will be given a pass by most fans because he is trying to build the program with his players and system. That’s impossible to do in two years.
A fast start and rough ending will be better than a slow start and a 3-9 season.
“We’ve been really focusing on scheme and assignment down in the red zone, kind of just making sure guys are on the same page. We obviously have the talent, we have the players and we have the scheme to do it.”
— Arizona tight end Bryce Wolma
Arizona had red-zone touchdown rate of 51.1 percent last season, down from 71.1 percent in 2017 when the Wildcats ranked third in the Pac-12 in red-zone efficiency with touchdowns. The Wildcats scored 10 fewer points per game in 2018 than two years ago and had the dubious mark of averaging the second-most field goal attempts in the conference.
By the numbers
That’s the completion rate of highly touted freshman QB Grant Gunnell in workouts to this point, according to Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. The 6-foot-6 standout from Texas will give Arizona coaches the assurance it needs to replace Khalil Tate if Tate falters or becomes injured. That comfort with a backup was non-existent last season. After this season, it appears Gunnell will be the starter, giving Arizona its first pro-style quarterback since Nick Foles in 2011. After Foles departed, B.J. Denker, a running quarterback, became the starter before Anu Solomon took over in 2013.
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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.