Stoops is motivated by Arizona doubters

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona coach Mike Stoops is fit and relaxed and just a bit irritated.

All three speak to him being in a far better place as he enters his sixth season as Arizona's coach.

Fit? The former All-American safety at Iowa looks like he could suit up again. If the Pac-10 title were decided in a bar room brawl, Stoops might be your guy. The avid runner has been hitting the weight during the off-season and he is not above suggesting that a reporter might want to do the same.

Relaxed? Instead of getting his butt burned by the hot seat upon which he sat last year, he led the Wildcats to an impressive victory in their first bowl game since 1998.

Irritated? He's just a bit piqued at his Wildcats being picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10.

(The Pac-10 blog is on record, by the way, believing he has a point.)

His Wildcats were picked behind UCLA and Arizona State, teams they beat by identical 31-10 counts in 2008.

Arizona, which won eight games last year, has 14 starters back, UCLA 17 and Arizona State 15. The Sun Devils and Bruins combined for nine wins. Each will feature a quarterback making his first start this season.

Beyond that, the Wildcats largest margin of defeat was 10 points (Oregon). They lost two games by a combined three points

So why the diss?

"I don't know," Stoops said. "This is our best team."

Really? Stoops must replace quarterback Willie Tuitama, practically a four-year starter, receiver Mike Thomas, offensive tackle Eben Britton and four defensive starters.

The only player on his team someone in, say, Des Moines, Iowa might have heard of is tight end Rob Gronkowski.

So why is Stoops certain his team is being underrated?

"Our greatest strength is we don't have any really big weaknesses," he said. "We don't have any really big holes... We're pretty strong across the board."

In a conference with two fancypants secondaries getting national attention -- USC and California -- Stoops believes he's got a match.

In a conference where everybody is touting their linebackers, Stoops believes his three are as athletic as any troika in the conference -- and junior middle linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka looks like a potential star.

He thinks defensive end Brooks Reed is underrated, despite recording eight sacks last year. He likes the rest of his D-line, which is returns intact and is deeper than it was a year ago.

He's fired up about his three tailbacks. Things are good at receiver. He gushes about his offensive line.

"I'm really pleased with our ability to play physically and protect," he said.

A decision at quarterback is expected shortly -- perhaps as soon as this weekend -- between Matt Scott and Nick Foles, with Scott being the favorite.

And if the quarterback doesn't, as Stoops said, "Go crazy," this team should meet or exceed last year's performance.

Eighth place!

It might seem that Stoops is mustering a motivational angle, and not just for his team.

Stoops clearly likes maintaining an edge. While no one relishes job insecurity, last year provided him an obvious one.

"Things were defined last year -- that almost made it easier, if that makes sense," he said. "We knew we had to win. They gave us ample time. We knew we were close. Clearing that mental obstacle for our team was huge."

Making the next step as a program won't be easy. As hard as it is to go from three to eight wins, it's not any easier to go from eight to 10.

"Until you do it, you are always going to wonder [if you can]," he said.

It's still a work in progress in Tucson. Stoops wants his team to play loose and confident but also be able to set its collective jaw during the waning moments of close games so they don't slip away.

Eighth-place? It seems like Stoops believes his team is a play or two away from finishing in the top-third of the Pac-10.