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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)
Kragthorpe: Arizona’s rise should alarm Utes

Arizona only 1-3 in conference play, but watch out — toughest part of schedule is out of way.

First Published Oct 23 2012 02:40 pm • Last Updated Oct 23 2012 11:47 pm

While the Utah Utes are doing enough on their own to merit the label of the Pac-12’s most disappointing team in 2012, part of that perception is not their fault.

The biggest reason the Utes were picked No. 2 behind USC in the Pac-12 South was the unknown factor of three new coaches in the division. Because of those variables, it was just about impossible to make a strong case for Arizona State, UCLA or Arizona as the top challenger, so Utah was the default choice.

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As we know now, those schools made very good coaching hires. The decisions will affect not only this year’s standings, but also the future prospects of Utah’s ability to compete in the South. The Utes have lost to ASU’s Todd Graham and UCLA’s Jim Mora, and they’ll meet Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez next month.

Actually, if any development in the league this season should frighten the Utes in a long-term view, it is what Rodriguez is doing in Tucson. The Wildcats have only one league victory, but last weekend’s 52-17 rout of Washington was the most impressive performance by any South team against a North opponent to date.

Arizona’s losses are to top-20 teams Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford (combined record: 18-2), making that 1-3 conference mark more forgivable. OSU rallied to beat the Wildcats and Stanford needed a late flurry just to force overtime. So the Wildcats are well on their way to creating a four-school upper tier in the South, leaving conference newcomers Utah and Colorado below the other programs.

Because they went 3-0 in nonconference play, the Wildcats need only two more wins to become bowl-eligible — and they play Colorado and Utah. After hosting USC this week, they will have absorbed the meat of the Pac-12’s toughest intra-conference schedule, which sent them to Oregon and Stanford and skipped Washington State and California (Utah will miss Cal and WSU in 2013 and ’14).

Rodriguez got lucky when former coach Mike Stoops redshirted quarterback Matt Scott and deferred his senior season, because Arizona had NFL prospect Nick Foles in 2011. Regardless, Rodriguez has done more to maximize the talents of Scott and other inherited players, including running back Ka’Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill, than anyone could have imagined. Against Oregon State, Stanford and Washington, Scott completed 90 of 144 passes for 1,150 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Operating the spread scheme that Rodriguez pretty much invented, the Wildcats rank fifth nationally in total offense (548.7). They proved against Washington that it’s better to have a great offense and a below-average defense than a good defense and a below-average offense. Arizona overwhelmed the Huskies with 533 yards, divided almost evenly between running and passing, and they led 45-17 early in the third quarter.

"They’re doing an unbelievable job with the system," said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "Rich Rodriguez deserves a ton of credit. To think that you could come in and change the system the way he did … really is amazing."

The transition obviously has gone more smoothly for Rodriguez at Arizona than at Michigan in 2008, even amid injuries to the offensive line.

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"Guys have learned really quickly," he said. "It’s been fun to watch. We’re probably further along than I even thought we’d be at this point."


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