With recruiting behind us and most schools in the swing of spring drills (the last of the bunch kick off next week), the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell Arizona winning the South?
Buy: Arizona has a sneaky-strong position as it sets up for the 2013 season and the South Division race.
It starts with the schedule, which includes fortuitous misses of Stanford and Oregon State. In fact, when you toss in three horribly weak nonconference games -- the nonconference schedule would make an SEC team blush -- you can envision seven games in which the Wildcats will be clear favorites. After that, you see three rugged road games -- Washington, USC and Arizona State -- and a pair of home games in which Arizona figures to be the underdog: UCLA and Oregon.
As it stands now, this schedule suggests seven or eight wins. What could swing the Wildcats in the upward direction -- or downward, if you want to be a pessimist -- is quarterback play. While the Pac-12 blog suspects many Wildcats fans don't realize just how good Matt Scott was last season -- obviously the Ted Miller half of the Pac-12 blog believes he was one of the elite players in the conference in 2012 -- the recent strong performances across the Pac-12 of first-year starters at the position means it doesn't require a Herculean leap of faith to wonder this with a degree of hope: What if the Wildcats are at least solid at the position?
Solid at quarterback, coupled with a lot of guys coming back everywhere else, would make Arizona a dark horse in the South, particularly if the defense is significantly improved. And the front-runners falter.
Now, I'm not picking the Wildcats to win the South. I'd rate them fourth at this point, behind Arizona State, UCLA and USC. But none of those teams is a sure thing. I also see a team that should be more comfortable with second-year coach Rich Rodriguez, one that has a lot of intriguing elements coming back.
Looking at this like a stock purchase, if you're willing to take on some risk, the Wildcats might be a team that will yield high reward.
Buy: I wanted Ted to go first for Arizona because I wanted to see how long it would take him to mention Matt Scott in relation to skeptical Arizona fans. He waited all the way until the middle of the third paragraph. His restraint is commendable. (Though it took him only three sentences to sneak in an SEC jab. Golf clap.)
The Wildcats are right on the edge -- and I agree that they are probably fourth in the pecking order of teams in the hunt for the division. As of today, I wouldn't pick them to win the South. But I wouldn't rule them out either. So I'm buying because of wait for it the improved defense! That's right, Jeff Casteel, this is your time to shine.
We're not talking about a handful of returners, we're talking about the entire defense returning. Are the Wildcats going to be at the same level as Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon State, et al? No. Probably not even in the same neighborhood. But they will be better than 105th against the run, 118th in total defense and 102nd in points allowed.
If the Wildcats make even incremental defensive progress, it is going to be a huge step forward and should be enough to offset a quarterback change on the other side of the ball. The 3-3-5 is a risk-reward scheme that, when run properly, can give offenses fits. It's unique to the conference, so teams aren't going to be used to seeing it, and Year 2 is usually when teams start to see progress because there is a better understanding of the big-picture concepts. I'm expecting the sacks to go up, the turnovers forced to go up and the yards allowed to go down.
The offense has enough elite playmakers to put points on the board. I think whoever wins the quarterback job is going to have enough warm-up time before that Sept. 28 game at Washington (and as of today I'd pick the Huskies in that one). With guys such as Ka'Deem Carey and Austin Hill, the Wildcats will again be an offensive force to be reckoned with. More importantly, the defense should do a much better job protecting leads in 2013, which gives the Wildcats a fighting chance against the South elite.