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August 31, 2009

by Scott Terrell

Arizona Football is back and everything has changed from 12 months ago. We crossed off every item on the To Do list last year: a winning season, breaking the losing streak against ASu, getting to and winning a bowl game. Are you ready now for a nice, relaxing season with the Wildcats?

Me neither.

Some would say the pressure is off Mike Stoops but that’s only half true. Yes, the pressure is off Mike Stoops the Builder. He has now proven he can take a program at rock bottom – a talent-thin roster with serious morale issues – and build a winner – a solid, mid-level team that has a chance to be competitive in every single game.

Now, however, the pressure is on Mike Stoops the Champion.

Are consistent 5- or 6-win seasons punctuated by 8- or 9-win peaks the norm? Or does Stoops have the ability to take that huge leap from good to great? Can he build all the way up to 11- and 12-win years? This season we’ll start to find out and because of that it’s a pretty big year. We get our first real look at just how high the ceiling is for the Stoops Era.

Do the ’09 Cats have to compete for the Pac-10 championship to validate their coach’s extension? No. But they do have to show us that the program’s overall trend is still up. They have to show us the roots are solid and the tree is still growing. How do they accomplish this?

They have to not stink.

The general consensus right now is decidedly stink. The Pac-10 media poll, the preseason mags, and the online pundits are almost all predicting a major backslide for Arizona. If it happens, we’re in bad shape. If losing a few key offensive players drops us all the way back into the 3-9/4-8 range it’s a serious blow to the vision of Mike Stoops as the guy who will take us where we long to go.

Could the worst-case happen? Let’s not forget, even though last year was a monkey-off-the-back experience, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Think back to all the moments when there was a lot of grumbling and doubt: after the New Mexico game (“Here we go again.”), after the Stanford game (“On the way to 5-7?”), halftime of the ASu game (“Four-game losing streak to end the year?!”). We were all relieved to have that 7-5 but it was a pretty rough 7-5.

But what if this year’s team doesn’t stink? What if Team Stoops replaces the most prolific passer in school history, the leading pass-catcher in conference history, both offensive tackles, and still posts a winning record? What if he matches or – heaven help us – actually improves on last year’s 8-5? The fans’ confidence would be reinforced, the media would have to admit that Mike Stoops might just know what he’s doing, and all limits would be removed as to how high this thing can go.

It’s obvious what we all want to happen, but should we expect it? Is it fair to demand that Stoops arrive on the national level with an honest-to-goodness breakout year? Or is it acceptable to drop back to the five-or-six-win level and save the big expectations for a year or two down the road?

That’s the question as we set this year’s Line Of Agonizing Disappointment. I’m not afraid to say I’ll be disappointed with a losing season. I want Mike Stoops to be The Guy, and I want him to prove his critics wrong. But I’m also nervous enough that I’m not expecting a better record than last year. With a tougher nonconference schedule and the extra Pac-10 road game the same 8-5 would be an improvement. It could be argued that even 7-6 with the tougher schedule and new personnel would be a more impressive feat than last year.

So that’s where I am. We have a rookie QB, a new tackle protecting his blindside, a shaky kicker, and a back injury turning GRONK! into gronk? for the time being. If we take all that and win more than we lose I’m a happy Cat.

Now, there are two ways to get to 7-6. You can either finish the regular season at 7-5 then lose your bowl game, or you can get into a bowl at 6-6 and win it. The thing to keep in mind for this year is the Pac-10 is back to only six bowl tie-ins after the Hawaii Bowl bailed, which increases the odds of a 6-6 team (or two) being left out (Hello, 2006 Wildcats). That makes the non-conference games very key for the teams that are going to end up around .500. Here’s a look at everyone’s OOC slate:

ARIZ – CMU, NAU, at Iowa
ASu – Idaho St., Lou.-Monroe, at Georgia
Cal – Maryland, E. Wash., at Minnesota
Ore – at Boise St., Purdue, Utah
OSU – Port. St., at UNLV, Cinn.
Stan – at Wake Forest, SJSU, Notre Dame
UCLA – SDSU, at Tenn., KSU
USC – SJSU, at Ohio St., at Notre Dame
Wash – LSU, Idaho, at Notre Dame
WSU – Hawaii, SMU, at Notre Dame

The good news from a bowl competition standpoint is there don’t appear to be a lot of 3-0’s out there, and the teams with the easiest non-league schedules (Cal and OSU) aren’t expected to have any problems getting into a decent bowl.

What you’re watching for is the number of mediocre Pac-10 teams. In 2007 and 2008 when there were enough bowl bids to go around, there were a total of three teams at 5-4 or 4-5 in league play each year. But in 2006 when 6-6 UA and WSU got shut out, there were four 4-5 teams and another 5-4 team. A fat middle isn’t good for anybody.

The UA goal this year is to give our local fans a chance to travel to ASu and a bowl game for the first time since 1997. But because that year's bowl was in Tucson, it would be the first time Cat fans would have to make two sets of travel plans since 1993. And since THAT year's bowl was in Tempe, it would be the first Wildcat squad to play at ASu and leave the state for a bowl since.....1985 when we went to the Sun Bowl.

(And that’s what we’ve been doing for going on five years now. You want insight and expertise? Go find a real sportswriter. You want statistical analysis of historical coincidences? We got more than you’ll ever need, baby.)

How do the Cats get back to the postseason? Facing road games against USC, Cal, OSU and ASu isn’t pretty, but at least it makes the road map simple. If this year’s team is going to do anything it has to be great at home. Oregon is by far the best team we’ll see at Arizona Stadium this year and they don’t come to town until game 10. Anything less than 5-1 at home would be a big disappointment and it would torpedo any chance at back-to-back bowl bids.

That means We The People are facing a big year too. Instead of complaining we don’t have USC coming to town for Homecoming we need to realize our team could win every home game this year and we need to build the atmosphere accordingly. Central Michigan can’t be the new New Mexico. Stanford can’t be, well, Stanford. If Our Guys don’t lose in Our House we all get to go to Our Next Bowl Game.

Your checkpoints are 2-2 heading into the first bye, 6-2 after WSU, then the season is defined in the final four games. The most important game of the year might just be at Washington. If we somehow win at Iowa or Oregon State the UW trip isn’t crucial for bowl eligibility, but if we’re 2-2 as expected we really don’t want to drop a third straight game with all those rough road trips at the end of the year.

Wouldn’t it be great if I turn out to be overly cautious and Stoops’ self-proclaimed best team is actually his best team? Wouldn’t it be fun if a defense-led Arizona team shuts down Central Michigan, speeds past Iowa, and overwhelms the Beavers?

But wouldn’t it be horrible if CMU throws all over us, Iowa runs through us, and our quarterback’s throws are all over the place as he runs for his life?

Where is Mike Stoops taking us?

That’s exactly what can’t wait to find out.

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