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Pac-12 Sports
Kurt Kragthorpe and Kyle Goon
Kurt Kragthorpe and Kyle Goon cover the Pac-12 for The Salt Lake Tribune.

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Arizona's head football coach Rich Rodriguez, right, congratulates Richard Morrison (8) for a kickoff return for a touchdown against Washington during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/John Miller)
Pac-12 football preview — Arizona hopes to claw way into conversation

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.

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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.

Kyle Goon

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

PAC-12 Links
Links from around the Pac-12
Arizona (Tucson Citizen)
» UA football: On Grant, Fuimaono and Cal's quarterbacks
» In the new issue of the Sports Insider
» UA football: 2015 schedule released
» Wildcats Show: UA needs more takeaways

Arizona St. (Arizona Republic)
» ASU adds student-athletic building to stadium
» ASU confident in backup QB Mike Bercovici
» Pac-12 releases 2015 football schedules
» ASU no longer recruiting JUCO forward

California (East Bay Tribune)
» Cal football still feeling Jeff Tedford's impact
» Sonny Dykes: Cal's confidence rooted in hard work
» Stanford, Cal 2015 football schedules announced
» Oakland Soldiers set tone for college basketball recruiting in Bay Area

Colorado (Denver Post)
» Speedy freshman Donovan Lee gives CU Buffs another playmaker
» Colorado coached to avoid coin-toss glitches, MacIntyre says
» Colorado's MacIntyre gratified Buffs practiced hard Monday
» CU Buffs tackle Jeromy Irwin might play vs. Hawaii after concussion

Oregon (The Oregonian)
» Oregon Ducks open up Autzen Stadium doors for Fan Fest: Photo gallery
» Oregon Ducks 2015 football schedule: A photo-by-photo look at the opponents
» Meet Keith Sharon, The Oregonian's new sports editor: Live chat, Wednesday at 12 p.m.
» JaQuan Lyle no longer on Oregon Ducks basketball roster as UO awaits word from NCAA Clearinghouse

Oregon State (Corvallis Gazette-Times)
» OSU men's basketball: Tinkle says positive steps being made
» Spencer to become new AD at Evansville
» BeaversSalute program gives tickets to military personnel and veterans
» Beavers promote McCoy to assistant athletic director for equipment operations

Stanford (San Jose Mercury-News)
» Stanford coach David Shaw goes digging
» Cal, Stanford Pac-12 men's basketball schedules announced
» Local sports digest: Stanford's Maverick McNealy ties for medalist honors
» Local sports digest: Stanford sweeps Santa Clara

UCLA (Los Angeles Daily News)
» UCLA Football Notebook: Running back Malcolm Jones loses appeal for extra season
» COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Improving UCLA has questions to answer during preseason football camp
» COLLEGE FOOTBALL: UCLA's prized recruit Eddie Vanderdoes cleared to play by NCAA after leaving Notre Dame
» Pac-12 Media Day: Eyes on Anthony Barr for UCLA's 2013 hopes

USC (Los Angeles Daily News)
» USC Football Notebook: Marqise Lee's injury not too serious
» USC Football Notebook: QBs Max Wittek, Cody Kessler present dilemma for Trojans coach Lane Kiffin
» USC FOOTBALL NOTEBOOK: Former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel thinks Trojans might not miss QB Matt Barkley
» USC FOOTBALL NOTEBOOK: Dion Bailey says it's 'now or never'

Washington (Seattle Times)
» UW's Deontae Cooper: “You know me: looking good, feeling good, trying to play good”
» UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith on Georgia State and backup QB situation
» Video: Jordan Paopao and John Ross on Georgia State
» Georgia State coaches have strong ties to UW

Washington State (Spokane Spokesman-Review)
» Recapping yesterday's practice
» WSU Football live chat
» Schedule makers always keep your budget in mind
» Eastern football links



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