Coach: Rich Rodriguez (26-14, entering fourth season; 146-98-2 overall)
2014 record: 10-4, 7-2 in the Pac-12 Conference, first in South Division
Look back: After three recruiting classes ranked in the top 50 in the country, Arizona began to see that influx of talent paying off for the program. The Wildcats opened 2014 by winning its first five games, including a 31-24 upset of then-No. 2 Oregon. It was the biggest win of the Rich Rodriguez era and the team followed it up by winning five of its next seven games to win the Pac-12 South title. But the ’Cats dropped the rematch with Oregon 51-13 in the league title game and stumbled against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: OL Mickey Baucus, OL Steven Gurrola, OL Fabbians Ebbele, WR Austin Hill, RB Terris Jones-Grigsby, DE Reggie Gilbert, DT Dan Pettinato, DB Jared Tevis, CB Jonathan McKnight, S Jourdon Grandon
Top returnees: QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson, WR Cayleb Jones, WR Samajie Grant, NT Parker Zellers, LB Cody Ippolito, LB Scooby Wright, LB Jake Matthews, DB Will Parks, DB Jarvis McCall
Strengths: Arizona’s offense received a big boost last season thanks to the play of quarterback Anu Solomon. The freshman set a school record with 3,793 yards passing and added 28 touchdowns.
The Wildcats return close to 80 percent of its production from the receivers corps, with Austin Hill and running back Terris Jones-Grigsby being the only major departures. Senior Cayleb Jones led the team in receptions (73) and receiving yards (1,019) while hauling in nine touchdowns. Along with junior Samajie Grant (45 catches, 716 yards), the pair will be Solomon’s primary targets.
Arizona may have leaned toward the passing game in 2014, but that didn’t mean the team abandoned the running game altogether. Nick Wilson rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns.
All-American linebacker Scooby Wright burst onto the scene last season after registering 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, becoming one of the most decorated defensive players in school history while claiming Pac-12 defensive player of the year honors. The Wildcats need another big season out of Wright if the defense is expected to improve in 2015. He’ll be joined by fellow linebacker Derrick Turituri (44 tackles, 3 sacks) and senior Will Parks (81 tackles, 12 tackles for loss), who will help provide the speed necessary to run Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 scheme.
Weaknesses: While Arizona’s defense was one of the keys to the Wildcats winning the Pac-12 South, the secondary was one of the weakest in the conference and allowed 281 yards per game through the air. The group did intercept 13 passes last season, but much of that production left this offseason along with Jared Tevis (2 INTs) and Jourdon Gandon (3 INTs).
Senior guard Cayman Bundage anchors an offensive line facing an uphill climb after the departures of Mickey Baucus, Steven Gurrola and Fabbians Ebbele. The trio combined for 92 of the group’s 174 career starts from last season. Transfer Freddie Tagaloa and Jacob Alsadek will help shore up a line that allowed 40 quarterback sacks in 2014.
Outlook: This could be Rodriguez’s most-talented team since arriving at Arizona. Last season’s run to the Pac-12 title game should motivate his players, which is good considering they need to survive a full season without a bye week.
Sept. 3 Texas-San Antonio
Sept. 12 at Nevada
Sept. 19 Northern Arizona
Sept. 26 UCLA
Oct. 3 at Stanford
Oct. 10 Oregon State
Oct. 17 at Colorado
Oct. 24 Washington State
Oct. 31 at Washington
Nov. 7 at USC
Nov. 14 Utah
Nov. 21 at Arizona State
College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com