Posted on July 23, 2020
The 2020 college football season isn’t yet a certainty, but we continue our Pac-12 football previews with the Arizona Wildcats. The weekly series culminates in what would have been Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
General Outlook: Cats Have Enough Offensive Weapons if Defense Holds
Overview: After posting back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2005, the Wildcats could see their foreseeable future shaped by Kevin Sumlin’s third season. Khalil Tate’s eligibility has been exhausted, setting the stage for Grant Gunnell to lead the Cats back to their first bowl game since a defeat to Purdue in the 2017 Foster Farms Bowl. If Gunnell can’t get it done, a third-straight losing season would likely ensure that Sumlin’s contract isn’t extended beyond 2022.
Fortunately, Gunnell is tailor-made for Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system. As a true freshman, he saw sporadic playing time, but still put together a nine-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio while also throwing for more than 1,000 yards. With a strong arm, accuracy, and sneaky mobility, Gunnell’s success could make-or-break the Sumlin Era.
No less important, the Wildcats have a stable of capable running backs led by senior Gary Brightwell. Named to the Doak Walker Award watch list honoring the country’s best running back, Brightwell is poised to have the most productive year of his career after the early departure of J.J. Taylor to the NFL. With depth behind Brightwell, UA will once again contend for the Pac-12 rushing title, a distinction the Wildcats have claimed three of the last four seasons.
None of that will matter, though, if new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads can’t shore up a defense that allowed 35.8 points per game in 2019. If Rhoads’ new 3-4 system results in a unit that’s tougher to score on, Arizona may just find itself proving the doubters wrong.
Best-Case Scenario: The Cats open the season with three-straight victories (currently scheduled against Stanford, UCLA, and Colorado) to set the stage for a decisive matchup in Tucson with USC. The lingering mojo from the magical 2014 campaign isn’t enough, and Arizona loses another heart-breaker to the Trojans.
A series of defeats follow to Washington, Oregon, and Utah, despite Gunnell playing like a veteran and the defense showing improvement under the new formation.
The season ends on the right foot with the Cats beating Oregon State in Corvallis and emerging victorious over Arizona State in the Territorial Cup for the first time under Sumlin.
Worst Case Scenario: After early stumbles to the Cardinal and Bruins, the Cats manage to secure their first win of the season over Colorado. It isn’t enough to turn the tide, and Arizona loses its next four games until the showdown with Oregon State. Though Gunnell and the offense do enough to beat the Beavers, the Sun Devils stroll into Tucson the next week and secure an easy victory.
The Territorial Cup defeat puts a forgettable season to rest, dashing any remaining faith in Sumlin. Without the funds to terminate him early, the somber reality of the next few years sinks in.
What Should Happen: A year of experience in Mazzone’s system should do wonders for Gunnell in his sophomore season. Supporting talent at running back should keep defenses honest, allowing the passing game to thrive under the gunslinger’s decision-making and execution.
The wide receivers should get the job done by committee until star wideout Jamarye Joiner returns from injury. In the meantime, Tayvian Cunningham’s speed in the slot can dice up the flats, while sophomore Boobie Curry is expected to breakout on the edge. Oregon transfer Brenden Schooler should hit the ground running, becoming a reliable favorite target.
In the backfield, Brightwell should live up to the rushing attack’s reputation, posting multiple games of 100+ yards on the ground. Behind him on the depth chart, Nathan Tilford projects to bulldoze would-be tacklers and maintain his career 6.9 yards-per-carry, while freshman Frank Brown figures to emerge as a dangerous threat out of the backfield. Michael Wiley, Bam Smith, and freshman Jalen John should all contribute when given the opportunity. In the end, the UA rushing production remains atop the Conference.
On the other side of the ball, Rhoads’ scheme should yield noticeable improvement. Despite losing star linebacker Tony Fields II and standout safety Scottie Young Jr. to the transfer portal, Colin Schooler and Anthony Pandy project to thrive with an extra linebacker alongside them. Freshman defensive lineman Regen Terry figures to work his way into the starting lineup, while fellow freshmen linemen Shontrail Key and Paris Shand crack the rotation. The characteristics of a Sumlin-recruited defense finally bears fruit, as his focus on bringing in size along the line pays off with increased sacks and tackles for loss.
Defensive transfers Aaron Blackwell, Roy Lopez III, and Isaiah Mays should each contribute and make plays. In short, the improvement on defense should allow the Cats to stay competitive against better competition and win toss-up games.
What Must Happen: Other than the consistent play of Grant Gunnell on offense, the defense must find depth in the secondary, particularly at safety. With the transfer of Young Jr., the Cats will be without their second, third, fifth, and sixth leading tacklers from last season. That’s a lot of production to replace, though it opens the door for newcomers to shine.
Junior college transfer Mays figures to play an important role in the depleted secondary, but sophomore corners Christian Roland-Wallace and Bobby Wolfe must improve on their freshman seasons.
Roland-Wallace started eight games as a true-freshman, and Rhoads will rely on him to lock down his side of the field. Redshirt-senior corner Lorenzo Burns must continue to pull down picks, building on the nine he already has notched in his career. But perhaps most importantly, Wolfe needs to make a strong jump from his underwhelming first season. Alternatively, if incoming freshman Khary Crump is able to crack the rotation, the cornerback position could solidify itself as the deepest group on defense.
Even so, the lack of depth at safety creates a gaping hole. Of the returners, Christian Young and Jarrius Wallace, the projected starters by default, are the only players with significant experience. That leaves opportunities for playing time, and it may even require the conversion of one of the corners.
Greatest Strength: Quarterback Talent and Potential
The talent of Gunnell can’t be denied.
As a true-freshman, he gained experience against defenses in Oregon, Utah, and Washington, and saw action against the speed and talent of USC. Gunnell led the Wildcats to a victory over UCLA in his first start, and knows what to expect heading into his second season. He certainly has the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
With the arm-strength to make every throw, and the football IQ to go with it, Gunnell could emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in the Conference.
Biggest Concern: Offensive Line Chemistry and Inexperience at Safety
The health and chemistry of the offensive line could doom Arizona’s season.
In 2019, when the starters were healthy the Cats jumped to a 4-1 start. Then the injury bug set in, and the unit saw multiple combinations of lineups the remainder of the year. If something similar happens in 2020, UA could be in for another bumpy ride.
Assuming the hog-mollies stay healthy, the strength of the defense becomes concern number one. Trevon Mason anchors the line, but returning players Kyon Barrs and Myles Tapusoa need to contribute more. Jalen Harris and JB Brown project to maintain their solid production, but improvements by both would be welcomed by Sumlin and Rhoads.
The linebacker duo of Schooler and Pandy is strong, but a third and fourth starter must emerge, as well as viable backups.
And while the corners are deep and experienced, the safeties must find depth.
Deciding Factors: Rapid Development of a Talented Freshman Class
The impact of the freshman class could be a game-changer. Running backs Brown and John were the highest rated of the group, but in-state defensive lineman Terry could have just as much of an impact. Dion Wilson Jr., Derick Mourning, Shand, and Crump are each strong candidates to see significant playing time on defense.
Regardless, someone has to emerge from the Class of 2020 and contribute right away. The implementation of a new scheme under a new coordinator bodes well for the freshmen, who should get a longer look than they otherwise would have.
Schedule Analysis: Probable Conference Matchups
News of the Pac-12 finalizing a 10-game Conference schedule could change things, but the game currently scheduled as the opener against Stanford could foreshadow success for the season.
If Arizona were to hold steady at home against the Cardinal, the following road test against UCLA appears much more winnable. The game against Colorado in Tucson projects as a tough matchup, but it’s a battle the Cats should win.
The next four-game stretch is like a march through the desert in June, with matchups against USC, UW, Oregon, and Utah. November doesn’t get much easier with a road game in Corvallis against the Beavers.
On the week of Thanksgiving, Arizona hosts Arizona State in the traditional Duel in the Desert. The Territorial Cup is a wildcard that remains notoriously unpredictable, even if the teams appear outmatched on paper.
Assuming everything goes right, the Wildcats could win as many as five games. But if things turn south, a two-win season is a possibility.
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