UOP Stadium

Saturday’s game in Glendale will be a little warmer this time around. Photo by Wildcat Universe

After three straight years of overachieving under Rich Rodriguez the Arizona Wildcats football program took a step backwards in 2015. Predicting this season requires answering two questions: Is the schedule easier than last year? And is the team better?

Fans in the Wildcat Universe have been doing this preseason ritual for a very long time. Establish your personal expectations for the team before the games begin and before fan emotion clouds your brain. This win total, your Line Of Agonizing Disappointment, will serve as a frame of reference as you ride the highs and lows of an Arizona Football season.

Can the Cats improve on last year’s seven wins? Let the rational thoughts flow.

First of all, is the schedule easier than last year? Could similar talent and production produce more wins simply by facing lesser competition? The non-conference slate most certainly is not easier as BYU is the toughest opponent Arizona has faced outside the Pac-12 since Oklahoma State four years ago.

In league play the UA faces the same nine teams as last year. You want to say the Pac-12 schedule is a bit easier because of the fifth home game but it’s not that simple. From this vantage point the Wildcats will be expected to have the exact same result as last year in seven of the nine games: beat Colorado and Oregon State and lose to Washington, UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington State. Even if you give the UA the edge in the Territorial Cup game this year you have to concede the edge against Utah with that contest being Salt Lake City.

On paper it looks like another 3-6 record in conference action which means a perfect non-league mark is needed to go bowling which means there’s a lot of pressure on this season opener in Glendale.

The best chance for an unexpected Pac-12 win appears to be Washington at home. The Huskies are being hyped as a conference contender, they open the season with three cupcakes in Seattle and they face Stanford just six days after coming to Tucson. All the boxes are checked for an upset in the desert.

In other words, it won’t take long to find out everything we need to know about the 2017 Wildcats. The season story could be written by the end of September. Start 3-1 and a fifth straight bowl game seems secure. Go 2-2 and you’re staring at the next five straight as underdogs needing at least one surprise to avoid securing a losing record before the home stretch even begins. Start 4-0 and all the preseason projections go out the window as talk of “2014 part 2” runs rampant.

If the schedule isn’t any easier than the only other way for this team to improve on last year is to actually improve. Is this team any better than 2015?

You can’t find an Arizona season preview without the words “if” and “healthy.” If Nick Wilson stays healthy he could surpass the 1,300 yards he put up his freshman year. If the offensive line stays healthy it could be one of the better units in the conference. If the linebackers stay healthy it means there aren’t really RichRod voodoo dolls in the hands of every other coach.

If everyone stays healthy the offense should be really good. The defense? It can’t get much worse than last year but is it realistic to expect it to be better?

The new defensive coaching staff was brought in to bolster recruiting and by all accounts it is paying off. But those recruits won’t be freshmen until next year. They won’t be upperclassmen until 2019 and they won’t be fifth-year seniors until 2021. The point is, it could be a long time before Arizona fields an above-average defense.

It doesn’t matter what filter I use; the 2016 season looks just like last year. Win the five games you should (Grambling State, Hawai’i, Colorado, OSU and, yes, ASU) and steal one toss-up-at-best game. Six regular season victories and win another mid-December bowl game. 7-6 isn’t glamorous but it’ll do for me in 2016.

Tread water another year before swimming toward shore next season. And hope the new recruits show up with a really big boat.

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