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Monday, August 3, 2009
Who's your No. 5? It should be Arizona

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Thirty-nine points separated No. 1 USC and No. 2 California in the Pac-10 media poll.

Cal's lead over Oregon was 27 points. Oregon's over Oregon State, 34.

No. 9 Washington trailed No. 8 Arizona by a whopping 68 points.

While Arizona fans -- and players and coaches -- might be miffed that their Wildcats ended up No. 8 after finishing fifth a year ago, the margin between the Wildcats and No. 5 Arizona State was just 13 points.

If you forgot, the tally looked like this:

  1. USC (28)... 316
  2. California (3)... 277
  3. Oregon (1)... 250
  4. Oregon State... 216
  5. Arizona State... 155
  6. Stanford... 150
  7. UCLA... 145
  8. Arizona... 142
  9. Washington... 74
  10. Washington State... 35

Arizona was my No. 5.  

(In a side note, it was interesting at media day listening to the coaches of the mid-level teams. Arizona coach Mike Stoops, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and Stanford's Jim Harbaugh each sold their team as being better than the experts were projecting. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel seemed notably -- and curiously -- modest about his team's chances, humbly asking the football spirits for six wins. That gets a "hmmm.")  

I only pulled back at the last moment from adding the Wildcats to my preseason Top 25. I thought it might be a good idea to watch them carry a 2-0 record to Iowa on Sept. 19 before I committed to a national ranking. This is a team, however, with top-25 potential.

"I feel this is our best overall team from one to 85," Stoops said.

I agree.

"I think our lack of respect in this conference is built around our ability to replace a very quality player in [quarterback] Willie Tuitama," Stoops said.

I agree. But I think that conventional thinking is wrong. Tuitama re-wrote the Wildcats' passing record book, but the most remarkable thing about the Wildcats' passing record book is the stunning lack of recognizable names. Tom Tunnicliffe? Moreover, there is this: Tuitama wasn't invited to the NFL combine, nor was he drafted, nor has he signed an NFL contract.

All due respect to Tuitama, who tossed 67 career touchdowns passes, but he was just one piece of the Wildcats' offensive success the past two seasons. And he probably wasn't the most important one (Rob Gronkowski? Mike Thomas? Eben Britton? Coordinator Sonny Dykes?).

He's certainly replaceable. Whether that ends up being Matt Scott or Nick Foles. Before the 2008 season, there were big questions about the Wildcats' defense. That no-name unit ended up third in the Pac-10 in both scoring and total defense. And it welcomes back seven guys.

"Defensively, we have never been stronger -- this is the best 11 that we've ever put on the field," Stoops said.

Added safety Cam Nelson: "We're going to play the usual Coach Stoops type of defense -- hard-nosed with a lot of no-name guys who are going to come out and play as hard as they can."

While Arizona and its fans seemed happy with eight wins and a bowl victory last year, the Wildcats left a lot of football on the field. Their largest margin of defeat was 10 points (Oregon). They lost two games by a combined three points.

Stoops has made Arizona competitive again. The next step is learning how to finish games.

Here's a guess that next step is taken in 2009.