As a die-hard Michigan fan I know all too well the highs and lows that Arizona fans are destined for over the next few years. Their new head coach, Rich Rodriguez, is unquestionably an offensive genius. When they get glimpses of what can happen with Rich Rod as puppet master it will have them believing anything is possible. But then they’ll face lows that are so unbelievably low that they seem impossible.
Rodriguez does things his own way, and many of those ways are so unique that it inevitably takes teams a long time to get comfortable and understand their roles in the new reality.
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For the second time in a row Rodriguez is in the position of taking over a proud program that has empty cupboards — though things are in much worse shape here than they were in Michigan, and that was bad enough. So far, though, he hasn’t faced nearly the opposition from the Arizona community that he did in Ann Arbor — and he hopefully learned from that experience and was smarter about how he introduced himself as well. If he isn’t much better prepared then there is really no hope for him.
One thing working in Rodriguez’ favor is that he is in a conference that is much better suited to him than the stodgy Big Ten ever was. With guys like Chip Kelly and fellow new face Mike Leach in the conference, Rodriguez and his radically aggressive offensive ideas will be in very good company. That will make the conference very fun to watch, but it also adds a whole new type of pressure to the coach — he’s running out of excuses in a hurry.
It would be best for Rodriguez if quarterback Nick Foles had another year of eligibility, but he’s with the Eagles now. Things could be worse, though — fifth-year senior Matt Scott is around to take over. He has started five times, and he is mobile enough and smart enough to have a fighting chance of learning the system in a short time. Beyond that, though, things are scary. The likely backup, Richard Morrison, was a high school QB who was converted to receiver when he first arrived in Tucson.
Quarterbacks are only as good as the guys that they throw to and the guys that protect them. The news there isn’t entirely positive. All five starters on the line return, but that may not actually be a good thing. If they have started then they are set in their ways. Rodriguez changes literally everything that linemen do, so there will be a whole lot of habits to break, and likely a lot of resistance along the way. The problem at receiver is the opposite — the top three producers from last year are all gone and there is little depth to replace them. The best prospect is Dan Buckner, a transfer from Texas. He was solid when he played last year in his first year in Tucson, but he struggled with injuries.
There isn’t a clear star at running back, but there are plenty of intriguing options. And if Rodriguez decides to use his running backs more than he has in the past then he’ll have some success. That is, of course, if the offensive line can adjust to their new reality and become accustomed to much more demanding run blocking assignments in this new offense.
The fatal flaw of Rodriguez in Michigan was his defense. His offense improved each year and was potent in his last season, but his defense was beyond brutal and only got worse with time. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest was that he failed to convince defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to come with him from West Virginia. Casteel runs a unique 3-3-5 defense, and Rodriguez failed miserably when he tried to keep the system and hire coordinators unfamiliar with it to run it. To his credit he learned a lesson, and he was sure to bring Casteel with him to the high desert. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this defense was beyond terrible last year, and it has too many issues to count.
The team produced just 10 sacks last year. That impossibly low total was largely a result of hugely disappointing performance from the line. Now that line needs to get used to playing in a new system — one where they have to cover much more ground, much more quickly than they are used to.
The linebackers face new challenges as well, and there is a stunning lack of depth there. They will be relying heavily on junior Jake Fischer. He’s their best talent, but he also missed all of last year with a torn ACL so health is an obvious issue. They are likely going to have to play true freshmen all over the defense. At Michigan that was a major recipe for disaster.
Only one team was worse against the pass than Arizona last year. Even more daunting, the two best members of that secondary are gone. Rodriguez needs to replace them, find another starter for the fifth position, and find a way to make the unit at least a little respectable. Impossible is too strong of a word to describe the task, but not by much.
2012 Arizona Wildcats Schedule Analysis
The good news — nonconference games against Toledo and South Carolina State are very winnable, and home games against Oregon State, Colorado and Arizona State could certainly be worse. The bad news — they are all but certain to get crushed when they visit Oregon and Stanford, and USC is going to humiliate them at home. Their remaining nonconference contest against Oklahoma State will be far from easy as well — even though the Cowboys have to break in a new QB.
2012 Arizona Wildcats College Football Futures Odds
The Rodriguez hire was greeted with optimism in Tucson, and that seems to have rubbed off on oddsmakers at Bovada. At 35/1 to win the Pac-12 they are longshots for sure, but that puts them at sixth in the 12-team conference. That seems far too high for my tastes. Their 300/1 to win the National Championship is no more palatable.
BetOnline has set the season win total at 5.5, with the “over” a solid favorite at -140.
2012 Arizona Wildcats Football Predictions
Despite the fact that he crushed my soul repeatedly in his three years at Michigan, I still have respect for Rodriguez. He was a good hire for this program, and there is a good chance that that he’ll turn things around here eventually.
He’s going to be very hungry and his eyes will be much wider open this time around, and he has the right staff around him. There are going to be massive growing pains, though, and in the short term things are going to be rough. The defense is a particular concern, and in a conference like this that’s bad news.
The reasonably good news, though, is the schedule. There are four games that they almost certainly can’t win, but beyond that it’s reasonably soft — things could definitely be worse. Given that I understand why people are flocking to the over, but history makes me seriously doubt that that is the right move.
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