The 2014 season could be a banner year for the Pac-12. The buzz all summer is about how the conference has an army of special players returning, and how much better so many teams seem to be. UCLA or Oregon are early nominees to make the college football playoff.
And yet, amid the positivity, it seems Arizona is hardly mentioned as a candidate for improving on last season's 8-5 record and fourth-place finish in the South Division. Coach Rich Rodriguez has a few thoughts on that.
Can the Wildcats still make a bowl game this year? "Hell, yeah. You want to improve more than that," he said during Pac-12 media days.
There's certainly work to do, if that's the case. Arizona is one of the youngest teams in the league, bringing back fewer starters than every South Division rival except Arizona State. It's not just the number: The Wildcats have inexperience at quarterback, running back, defensive line - areas not ideal to be bringing in new guys.
But certainly there's some cause for optimism in Tucson, not the least of which is having a healthy and experienced receiving corps led by a bonafide playmaker in Austin Hill. The Wildcats also have a strong secondary, which is a leg up in the pass-happy Pac-12.
On defense, particularly, the Wildcats aim to be more consistent. Last season began with a shutout but ended with the Sun Devils hanging 58 points on them. Over the years, Rodriguez said, Arizona has tried to reach a higher standard.
The first year we were celebrating every time we gave up a field goal. I mean, we were giving high fives to stop anything," he said. "Now we'll have a little bit more depth and defensively a little more talent. And we better because the quarterbacks we're going up against each week are pretty dang good."
2013 IN REVIEW • 8-5, 4-5 in Pac-12; Beat Boston College in the Advocare V100 Bowl
RETURNING STARTERS • 14 total (7 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)
TOP RETURNING PLAYER • Don't count out receiver Austin Hill with a long-awaited return. Hill piled up 81 catches for more than 1,300 yards in 2012 before he tore his ACL and missed all of 2013. If he's the same player he was before, defenses everywhere will have to watch out.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK • Who is going to throw it and who is going to run it? The quarterback competition is slowly winding up for the Wildcats, one of two Pac-12 schools that doesn't return a starting QB. But there's also the question of who replaces all-star rusher Kadeem Carey. Two huge areas to replace production.
SCHEDULE OUTLOOK • The Wildcats begin the season with UNLV, UTSA and Nevada, programs that each had middling to decent seasons last year but which are all winnable. But Arizona's season really gets going after Cal with a road trip to Oregon followed by a trip to USC. The season has a punishing finish with six straight games, including visits to Washington State, UCLA and Utah. 'Zona probably can get to a bowl game if it can handle Colorado and Washington at home, but getting wins beyond that could be tricky for a young team. Oh, and don't let Arizona State run up the score again.
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