Everyone remembers well the 1-5 start to Arizona’s 2011 season? It’s a difficult one to forget considering then head coach Mike Stoops barely kept his job long enough to be allowed to fly home with the team after its 37-27 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis.
The question entering Arizona’s 2012 campaign becomes are Wildcat fans prepared for what could easily be another slow start to a football season?
The new-look Wildcats do play four of their first six games at home. However, the early schedule remains daunting no matter how good Arizona, and its fans, feel about the changes being made within the football program.
Of Arizona’s opening six match ups only two appear to be cakewalks and wins in either of these games won’t make headlines outside of Tucson. Arizona kicks off its season with a home game against Toledo, and later hosts South Carolina State, not South Carolina, on Sep. 15. Squeezed between these tilts is a much anticipated home game against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have outscored the Wildcats by a combined margin of 73-24 the last two years, and although stud quarterback Brandon Weeden and equally-talented receiver Justin Blackmon have since departed many experts see OSU as one of the nation’s sleeper picks to win the Big 12 Conference.
It’s easy to buy into the optimism that the third time will be the charm for Arizona against OSU, but what if it isn’t?
On Sep. 22 Arizona opens conference play with a road game at Oregon. The following weekend the Wildcats host Oregon State before traveling to Stanford on Oct. 6. This gauntlet of games is mercifully followed by Arizona’s lone bye week of the season, giving the Wildcats an extra week to prepare for its home tilt against the Washington Huskies.
While both Stanford and Oregon are also breaking in new quarterbacks, each, like OSU, returns a game-breaking rusher, a standout defense, and head coaches who know a thing or two about winning. Hence, while Arizona certainly can win any or all of these four games against BCS foes, what if they don’t?
Before you begin to answer, consider the following. OSU has taken Arizona to the woodshed the previous two seasons; Arizona is 1-9 in its last 10 trips to Oregon; Oregon State has won 11 of its last 13 meetings against the Wildcats; and Stanford owns a 7-2 series advantage in the last 10 seasons.
After consuming the abovementioned data, the original question looms larger. Are Wildcat fans prepared to handle losing early? Are Arizona fans prepared to accept the real possibility that their Wildcats could be 2-4 with wins over Toledo and South Carolina State heading into an Oct. 20 home game against Washington?
I have little doubt coach Rich Rodriguez, his staff, and the players will turn Arizona football around. Further, once they do it could easily evolve into the equivalent of a snowball gaining in size and ferocity as it rolls downhill. College football fans forget how bad the USC Trojans were in Pete Carroll’s first six games at the helm, something easily forgotten because from the second-half of his first season through the next six campaigns, the Trojans were nearly unbeatable. USC recovered from a horrendous September and early October to finish that first year under Carroll at 7-6. The Trojans then went on to lose two or fewer games a year for the next six consecutive seasons, resulting in a cumulative record of 69-8 (.896) over the six-year run.
For a program that’s never won its conference outright and received a birth in the Rose Bowl, it’s difficult for anyone to picture the Wildcats competing for a national championship in the next few years as USC began to do regularly under Carroll. However, it’s not difficult to imagine Rodriguez’s Wildcats soon competing directly with USC for bragging rights in the Pac-12 South and putting itself into a position(s) to play in the Rose Bowl several times in the next decade.
The happenstance for Rodriguez is he’s dealing with a fan base that’s had the wool pulled over its eyes one too many times. John Mackovic, suit, tie and all promised discipline and quality football. Mike Stoops promised west coast flare with a Big 12 toughness that was supposed to leave opponents toothless. Instead, in each case, it was Wildcat fans left with the toothache.
Rodriguez has introduced a new offense, a new defense, and a new philosophy on how to approach special teams, representing the hat trick of change within the program. Not easy to accomplish in a single off season.
Anyone would be a fool to predict, or even suggest failure on the part of Rodriguez and his Wildcats before a down has even been played. However, it’s not a stretch to think that the speed he’s recruiting on both sides of the ball to create somewhat of a bullet train on the gridiron might still exit the depot in 2012 slowly before building a head of steam.
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