TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona finished tied for second in the Pac-10 last year. It beat Oregon State, Stanford, USC and arch-rival Arizona State. After a mostly miserable decade without a bowl berth, the Wildcats have earned two consecutive postseason invitations.
Slowly but surely, Mike Stoops has built a contender.
That is a conversation-stopper in Tucson. Bring up the Wildcats 33-0 Holiday Bowl drubbing at the hands of Nebraska, and everyone around the program just shakes their heads.
"It was kind of a meltdown of major proportions," Stoops said.
The Wildcats, who started spring practices on Friday, are a combined 16-10 over the past two seasons. Nine of those defeats came by 10 or fewer points and four by three points or fewer. Suffice it to say, Stoops has built a competitive team that is much different than the crew he inherited.
Oh, but that Holiday Bowl. It was so ugly -- Arizona was outgained 396 yards to 109 -- that it seemingly doused much of the momentum for a program on the rise.
"We lost a lot of respect in that game and that's just how it happens -- it can happen pretty quickly," Stoops said. "I think our players are excited to regain their stature."
That's the rub. The embarrassment of the Bawliday Bowl represents a challenge: Move forward and up or sink back down into Pac-10 and national irrelevancy.
There are plenty of challenges ahead that have nothing to do with the bowl game dismantling. Both coordinators -- Mark Stoops on defense and Sonny Dykes on offense -- are gone. The younger Stoops is now running Florida State's defense and Dykes is Louisiana Tech's head coach.
Mike Stoops opted to fill those vacancies with co-coordinators: line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and running backs/tight ends coach Seth Littrell on offense and linebackers coach Tim Kish and secondary coach Greg Brown on defense. Bedenbaugh, Littrell and Kish were promoted from within. Brown was hired away from Colorado.
Toss in Stoops' interest in defense and new quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo on offense -- he might end up calling the plays; Stoops has yet to assign the duties -- and that's a lot of chefs in the kitchen.
On the players' side of things, there's plenty of continuity on offense with 10 guys with significant starting experience back. The defense is another story, with seven starters gone, including all three linebackers and both defensive tackles.
Still, to avoid taking a step back as a program, the first step forward might be coming to terms with the, well, you know.
What the heck happened?
"We made some tactical mistakes," Stoops said.
Stoops wasn't happy with some of the bowl preparation and his team's frame of mind on game day. And Nebraska surprised the Wildcats with their schemes on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Wildcats "just couldn't get open," Stoops said.
Cornerback Trevin Wade offers his own theory.
"People wanted to go home for Christmas and see their families," he said. "I know it's all business and everything, but we're still college kids and people wanted to go home. Had they given us a couple days, people would have come back happy and ready to go."
Hmm. Asked about that, quarterback Nick Foles said, "He might have something there but I don't know. I really have no comment on that."
Foles' ultimate diagnosis seems the most popular: "It was one of those games when it seemed like nothing could go right. I really can't explain it."
Foles was 6-for-20 for 28 yards with an interception, and that performance is perhaps the main reason he still has to look over his shoulder at backup Matt Scott this spring. Scott started the first three games last year before Foles took over.
Foles said the game should operate as a "chip on our shoulders" during spring practices.
"It makes your stomach hurt watching that film. It really humbles you," he said. "But I don't think you burn the tape. You want to. But to become a great player, you've got to experience things like that and learn from it."
Stoops accepts the ultimate responsibility for the Holiday Bowl, but it's also clear that he's just a bit irked at how it has obscured what his team accomplished in 2009 and how the team has gained steam the past two seasons.
And he knows that the meltdown will fuel skeptics who believe the Wildcats will fall back into the pack in 2010.
"A lot of people don't think we're going to be this or that. They didn't think that last year. That's fine with us. The proof will be in the scoreboard and in the wins and losses," he said. "We had a lot of good wins. Everyone forgets about Stanford. Everyone forgets about Oregon State. Everybody forgets about USC. You don't beat those teams without having a good program. You just can't do it."
Doing it again will be the best way to make everyone forget about the, er, thing that happened in San Diego.