The college football season can’t come soon enough. With every season comes new faces and possibilities. Who will be the teams to watch out for this season? This will be the third of many posts covering the top 25 teams in the country and will cover no. 23 Arizona Wildcats.
Rich Rodriguez was fired late in the coaching carousel, but Arizona was fortunate enough to land Kevin Sumlin as their next head coach. Sumlin takes over a team that went 7-6, but has high expectations for this season because of the emergence of their star quarterback. Even with the excitement, Arizona will have a lot of work to do if they want to challenge in the Pac-12.
The offense was fifth in the country in points per game with 41.3 and third in the country in rushing at 309.3 yards per game. They do need to improve their passing attack, as they only passed for 180.2 yards per game through the air. With seven returning starters, the production will be good once again.
A lot of the hype surrounding this team is because of quarterback Khalil Tate. Despite not starting the 2017 season as the starter, Tate worked his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. He threw for around 1,500 yards and rushed for around 1,500 yards in 11 games played. With a full season behind center, the sky is the limit for Tate.
The passing game still might not be up to par, but it won’t be due to lack of experience at the wide receiver position. Four of their top five leading pass catchers are back for another season. Shun Brown and Tony Ellison both had over 500 yards receiving last year. They’ll be tasked with working with Tate to provide a better passing game overall.
J.J. Taylor, their leading rusher from the running back position, might be small, but he produces. He is 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds which makes it hard to find him behind the offensive line. Over his two seasons at Arizona, Taylor has averaged 6.0 yards per rush. He, with Tate, will keep the chains moving.
The offensive line brings back two players who started in left tackle Layth Friekh and Nathan Eldridge. With Tate in the backfield behind them, they have to be aware of when he is going to stay in the pocket and when he is going to leave the pocket to try to make a play. Their running game was great last year and the new blockers coming in just have to be solid, not great, to keep the momentum going.
With Tate leading the way and Sumlin’s guidance, this offense can be explosive this season.
While the offense was putting up points, the defense struggled. They were the 108th ranked scoring defense, 123rd against the pass and 85th against the run. With nine players back from their starting unit, the hope is that they can take a huge step forward in 2018.
Junior college transfer P.J. Johnson will be newcomer starting at nose guard this season. With defensive ends Dereck Boles and Justin Belknap flanking him, there is hope that the defense can vastly improve against the run.
Tony Fields led the team in tackles as a freshman last season and added 5.0 sacks and one interception. He has potential to be the best Arizona linebacker since Scooby Wright. Kylan Wilborn and Colin Schooler are also revving up for good sophomore seasons at the linebacker position after making impacts as freshmen.
The secondary did lose Dane Cruikshank to the NFL, but they couldn’t be much worse than they were last season against the pass. Everyone else is returning to Tucson for next season, which hopefully means improvement for the Wildcats.
With so much experience on defense, there is no excuse to not improve over last season.
In the non-conference schedule, Arizona plays BYU (home), Houston (away) and Southern Utah (home). The first two games will be battles, but Arizona is the better team. If they play to their potential they should be able to get out of the non-conference schedule unscathed.
For the Pac-12, the Wildcats will have tough games against USC (home), Utah (away) and Oregon (home). They avoid both Stanford and Washington in crossover games. Arizona is certainly capable of beating everyone on their schedule, however, that is unlikely. They will be relying on Tate staying healthy and on the field to win games.
Arizona has an easier schedule meaning they can win eight to 10 games this season.
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