In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 26, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. You can find all the rankings and previews here.
No. 63 Arizona
The fall from Pac-12 South champs to three-win program was hard and fast for Arizona. Now likely on the hot seat, Rich Rodriguez is relying on a veteran offensive line, stable of dynamic running backs and a seasoned secondary to pull the Wildcats out of the rut and back into the postseason.
2016 Record: 3-9 (1-8, Pac-12)
Arizona won three games for the first time since 2005. Their rushing attack was about the only thing that worked during a season that featured an eight-game losing streak and blowout after blowout after blowout.
The Wildcats averaged 235 yards per game on the ground, first in the Pac-12 and 19th nationally. However, that production didn't translate to points, as they ranked dead last in the conference with a 24.8 scoring average.
Things fell apart after the overtime loss to Washington on Sept. 24. Seven of the next eight losses were by at least 21 points.
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez (6th year, 36-29 overall)
Arizona went 10-4 in 2014, the third under head coach Rich Rodriguez, and their hiring of the Michigan cast-off appeared to be brilliant. He was 26-14 in three years, won the program's first-ever Pac-12 South title and delivered the highest AP ranking (No. 8) in 15 years/
Then came a 7-6 mark (3-6 in the Pac-12) in 2015 and last year's three-win debacle. And Rodriguez's recruiting classes have finished ninth in the conference each of the last three years and they're off to a very slow start in 2018.
To state the obvious, he needs a big rebound year in 2017.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Brandon Dawkins, QB Khalil Tate, RB Nick Wilson, RB J.J. Taylor, WR Shun Brown, OT Layth Friekh, G Jacob Alsadek, C Nathan Eldridge
Junior Brandon Dawkins and sophomore Khalil Tate are competing for the starting job, though Rodriguez said Tate must "beat out" Dawkins, the incumbent who threw for 1,348 yards and eight touchdowns last year. He also said he expects more from the pair during the offseason.
“I don’t think the last few summers they’ve been as aggressive working on their skills and their game as they need to be.”
Tate appeared in just seven games as a freshman, completing 18 of 45 passes for 243 yards (5.4 yards per attempt), three touchdowns and three picks.
Whoever wins will lead an inexperienced and unsettled receiving corps that lost their top four receivers from last year. Shun Brown, a 5-foot-8 speedster who averaged 18 yards per catch, is the primary weapon.
Though Dawkins played poorly at quarterback, he did add 944 rushing yards and 10 scores, leading the team in both categories. The Wildcats lost hybrid receiver/running back Samajie Grant but return senior Nick Wilson — who played just five games due to injury — and rising sophomore J.J. Taylor. Taylor, just 5-foot-6, 155 pounds, averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
Taylor rushed for 265 yards in seven quarters against Hawai'i and Washington before going down with an injury. Though just 80 percent healthy by his own admission in the spring game, he looked terrific.
“It’s crazy,” guard Jacob Alsadek said. “Sometimes you’ll block somebody, you’ll look over and he’s 20 yards downfield already.”
The senior Alsadek leads a veteran offensive line that returns four starters and will give freshman Michael Eletise a chance at right tackle.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Parker Zellers, DE Justin Belknap, LB DeAndre' Miller, CB Jace Whittaker, CB Jarvais McCall Jr., CB Dane Cruikshank, CB Jace Whittaker S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, S Isaiah Hayes
Arizona yielded 38.3 points per game, 118th nationally, and generated just 14 turnovers (minus-seven turnover margin) under first-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. Yates came from Boise State, where the Broncos finished in the top 10 in forced turnovers in 2014 and 2015.
He is also the linebackers coach and could be one of few coaches in FBS history to start three freshmen at the position. DeAndre' Miller returns on the outside after registering five tackles for loss and three sacks, but the senior could be joined by all rookies.
The secondary, meanwhile, is loaded with experience. Jace Whittaker led the team with 11 passes defended, and Jarvis McCall (below), a huge (6-foot-2, 196 pounds) sure-tackling corner, is also back.
No players had more than three sacks last year. They ranked 86th nationally in sacks (1.8 per game) and 106th in tackles for loss (five per game). At 6-foot-2, 247 pounds, sophomore defensive end Justin Belknap is undersized but played decent as a freshman walk-on.
Notable Player Losses
RB/WR Samajie Grant, WR Nate Phillips, WR Trey Griffey, LB Michael Barton, S Paul Magloire Jr.
Samajie Grant had 2,130 total yards in four years, providing a reliable explosive presence at receiver or in the backfield. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 2016.
Elsewhere, second- and third-leading receivers Nate Phillips and Trey Griffey graduated after combining for 56 catches for 796 yards and four scores. Leading tackler Paul Magliore Jr. and their most disruptive linebacker Michael Barton are also gone.
Notable Player Additions
RB Nathan Tilford, OT Michael Eletise, DT Sione Taufahema, LB Jose Ramirez, LB Tony Fields III, LB Jacob Colacion
Nathan Tilford, a four-star running back and the 133rd-ranked player in the nation, was an early enrollee and wasted no time in impressing coaches.
“I think it’s his length and his power,” senior running back Zach Green said of Tilford. “You guys might not see it now but he has a lot of power; kids just slide off him in practice so I can’t wait to see him actually do that.”
As mentioned, redshirt freshman tackle Michael Eletise should start in Week 1, and three freshman linebackers — Jose Ramirez, Tony Fields III and Jacob Colacion — could do the same. Fields was a three-star prospect in the 2017 class from Las Vegas.
Arizona's non-conference schedule is highlighted by a home game vs. Houston and visit to UTEPUTEP. They haven't played the Cougars since 1986.
The Wildcats don't have back-to-back Pac-12 home games the entire season, playing five road games to four home games. Though the Week 2 game vs. Houston will give us a good idea of what to expect from Arizona in 2017, their Pac-12 opener vs. Utah in Week 4 will also be a good barometer.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Northern Arizona|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Houston|
|Friday, Sept. 15||at UTEP|
|Friday, Sept. 22||vs. Utah|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Colorado|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. UCLA|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Cal|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Washington State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at USC|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Oregon State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Oregon|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Arizona State|