The last two ASU games have been dark days for the Cats. Photo by Wildcat Universe

Rich Rodriguez won 16 games in his first two years at Arizona, more than any realistic fan could have expected. How do you improve on back-to-back 8-5 seasons? Simply “winning more” isn’t enough.

For a Wildcat program looking to move up in the Pac-12 South the next step is breaking through against UCLA and Arizona State.

Rodriguez took over a team that went 4-8 in 2011 and doubled that win total in his debut season. The Cats avoided a step backwards in 2013 even after losing quarterback Matt Scott and his 4,000 yards. But it’s not just how many games you win, it’s who you beat.

To win the conference you have to win your division and to do that you have to beat the best teams in that division. UCLA won the Pac-12 South in 2012 because it swept ASU, USC and Arizona. The Bruins and ASU both beat USC and Arizona last year but because the Sun Devils took down UCLA they are now the defending division champs.

A quick look at how the UA has done against each team in the Pac the last two years shows the holes in the resume:

Rich Rodriguez vs. Rest of Pac-12

Oregon St.01
Wash. St.01
Arizona St.02

It’s interesting that Arizona has played better against the top teams in the North thus far under RichRod. There’s no shame in splitting the two games with Oregon and leading Stanford by two touchdowns before losing in overtime. They are not, however, letting schools switch divisions so the UA will have to figure it out against the teams from the lower latitudes.

RichRod’s Wildcats have been competitive against USC. There was the upset win two seasons ago that marked the beginning of the end for Lane Kiffin, and a seven-point defeat at the L.A. Coliseum last fall.

It’s been a different story against UCLA and ASU. In Rodriguez’s debut season the Cats led the Devils in the fourth quarter but the UCLA game was a 66-10 beatdown. Last year the UA stayed within a score of the Bruins but the Territorial Cup game was over before the fans made it through the lines at Sun Devil Stadium’s port-a-potties.

RichRod is well aware of his oh-fer against the last two South champions and he was reminded of it again at Pac-12 Media Day.

“We’ve got to get better than them to beat them because they’re not going to go backwards,” Rodriguez told Rick Neuheisel of Pac-12 Networks (6:46 mark of the video).

“We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to recruit better and we’ve got to play better when we play them.”

It sounds like a call for patience but the sooner “better” gets here the better for Arizona fans.

So circle these dates on your calendar: Nov. 1 in Pasadena and Friday, Nov. 28 at Arizona Stadium for the Territorial Cup.

For RichRod and the Cats it’ll either be more of the same or Next Step November.

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