Best Case-Worst Case: Arizona
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Fifth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting from the top of our preseason Power Rankings and working down.
Up next: Arizona
The soft early schedule, as many expected, helped, but the 47-13 beat-down delivered to a respectable New Mexico team sent a message -- the offense was as-advertised but the defense was a lot better than previously thought.
That became clear after a solid victory at UCLA when Washington and quarterback Jake Locker came to town. The 2-2 Huskies had moved the ball on everyone, including during a close loss to Oklahoma. But the Wildcats jump on the Huskies early, building a 14-0 first-quarter lead, while the defense forces a pair of turnovers. Washington, forced to play catch-up, can't, and the Wildcats improve to 5-0 with a 45-20 victory.
Make it 6-0, though Stanford becomes the first defense to consistently pressure QB Willie Tuitama. Still, "hot-seat" talk for coach Mike Stoops ends when the Wildcats become bowl-eligible by midseason.
Of course, the tough part of the schedule is ahead. California and spectacular running back Jahvid Best become the first team that scores with the Wildcats. Best gains 262 total yards, and the outlandish dreams of a perfect season end when Bears kicker Jordan Kay connects on a 45-yard field goal with less than a minute left for a 33-30 Arizona loss.
Fans remained energized with USC coming to town, but expectations don't go stratospheric, and that is good. When the Trojans saunter off the field after handing out a 42-10 whipping, Wildcats fans remember there was still some distance between Tucson and Heritage Hall.
The Wildcats split their next two, whipping Washington State and playing a competitive game for a half in the November rain at Oregon. They return home to capture a hard-fought win over Oregon State, one that isn't secured until tight end Rob Gronkowski hauls in a 12-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left that completes a 10-point, fourth-quarter comeback.
That victory creates the biggest Territorial Cup in recent memory, with both the Wildcats and Arizona State sporting 8-3 records. The winner would earn either a Sun Bowl berth or Holiday Bowl invite if Oregon got the conference a second golden ticket from the BCS.
The game features four lead changes.
But Wildcats fans -- sporting newly printed "In Stoops We Trust" T-Shirts -- get the last cheer. Down by four with five minutes left, the Wildcats line up for a field goal. But Stoops calls a fake, and Jason Bondzio hits Delashaun Dean for a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Sun Devils hopes end with 45 seconds left when Rudy Carpenter is sacked on the Wildcats 40 by Earl Mitchell.
The celebration is raucous when Arizona is picked to face Texas in the Holiday Bowl. And even more raucous when Stoops is named Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
The bowl game is another matter. The Longhorns prove too physical up front for the Wildcats in a 34-24 win.
But few in Tucson fret a 9-4 finish.
Sure the early schedule was soft, but apparently Arizona wasn't exactly hard itself. Over at New Mexico, the Lobos get tired of hearing about how perfectly the Wildcats' schedule set up, recalling they'd won at Arizona the previous season.
A 31-27 Lobos win make sit easy for coach Mike Stoops' critics to re-start their nattering.
The Wildcats bounce back the following weekend, with Mike Thomas hauling in three Willie Tuitama touchdown passes in a 28-20 win at UCLA. But Washington quarterback Jake Locker runs and passes through and over the Wildcats defense the following weekend, and resurgent Stanford intercepts Tuitama three times in a 27-21 win.
At that point, the situation became untenable. With Arizona State celebrating a top-10 ranking after beating Georgia and nearly besting USC, administrators decide to fire Stoops and elevate offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes to interim head coach. Athletic director Jim Livengood also announces his resignation.
Dykes' elevation -- which he's unsure he wanted in the first place -- doesn't help. California and USC whip the Wildcats. An overtime win at beleaguered Washington State is followed by a pair of blowout defeats, as it's clear the players are mailing in their effort.
Some fans hold out hope that the program will play for pride and try to ruin Arizona State's bid for a BCS at-large berth.
They do. For a half. But Rudy Carpenter carves up the Wildcats defense in the second half, and the final 42-27 count does nothing to soften the blow of another lost season.
And Sparky dances and dances at Arizona Stadium.