No. 5: Arizona. It was as late as November last season and the Wildcats controlled their own destiny to win the Pac-10 title. But a visit to Cal derailed those hopes, as the Bears sent Arizona packing with a 24-16 victory. A 44-41 loss in a whale of a game the following week against Oregon put the conference title out of reach, but the Wildcats responded by beating Arizona State and USC — both on the road — to close out the regular season.
That left Arizona in a three-way tie for second, and the feeling that the Wildcats possibly were here to stay as conference contenders. Arizona had been making incremental strides in recent years, but just when it appeared the Wildcats would take two steps forward, they would take one back.
Despite their embarrassing 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, 2009 was a pivotal year in Tucson. Quality wins over Oregon State, Stanford and USC went a long way in how the program is perceived. Now, it’s up to coach Mike Stoops and his revamped staff to sustain it.
To do that, the first thing the Wildcats will have to do is make a smooth transition to new voices on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes took his spread offense to Louisiana Tech, where he replaced Derek Dooley as head coach. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops took the same job at Florida State. Mike Stoops replaced each with co-coordinatorys, meaning there will be a lot of voices being heard in meeting rooms and the practice field.
New offensive coordinators Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell have to like what the see returning to Tucson. The Wildcats lose only one starter from an offense that was potentially explosive at times, although reutrning starting receiver Delashaun Dean is currently serving an indefinite suspension because of a weapons charge. Dean caught 42 passes last season. Still, with efficient Nick Foles returning at quarterback, Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin back at tailback and an experienced and talented offensive line holding things together, the Wildcats should put up their share of points.
And they may need to. Arizona lost six starters from a defense that ranked second in the Pac-10 last season (322 points allowed per game). The biggest questions will come at linebacker, where the Wildcats lost all three of their starters. The good news for the defense is defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed return, as does potential All-American cornerback Trevin Wade. Elmore was wecond in the Pac-10 last season with 10 1/2 sacks.
The top of the conference appears to be substantially unsettled this season, and the Wildcats could be in contention all the way through.