Arizona has made great strides in six seasons under coach Mike Stoops. But whether the Wildcats can make a giant leap is subject to debate.
During Stoops' tenure, Arizona has ended a 10-year postseason absence. Back-to-back winning seasons have been recorded for the first time in more than a decade. A nine-game losing streak to USC was halted. Yet despite all that progress, a dubious distinction remains: Arizona is the only Pac-10 member that hasn't captured a conference championship. And an embarrassing 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl gives skeptics reason to doubt that's going to change.
But the Wildcats' offense has impressive talent and depth at the skill positions. The kicking game is excellent. The defense has holes to fill, but it also features some of the Pac-10's most productive players.
Stoops had to hire new coordinators in the offseason, and that may raise some concern. But overall there is an optimistic feeling in Tucson that the Wildcats are ready to take the next step.
Here's a closer look at the Wildcats.
THE SCHEME: Although Bill Bedenbaugh and Seth Littrell are sharing offensive coordinator responsibilities, the Wildcats won't change from the spread attack used under former coordinator Sonny Dykes, now the coach at Louisiana Tech. The Wildcats have the quarterback and receivers for a wide-open passing attack, but the caliber of running backs on hands ensures they will have a significant presence on the ground, too.
STAR POWER: The Wildcats have a potential constellation here with QB Nick Foles and RBs Nic Grigsby and Keola Antolin. But junior WR Juron Criner could be really special. He's coming off a breakout year in which he averaged nearly 13 yards on 45 catches, with nine touchdowns. Four of his touchdowns came on catches that covered at least 25 yards. C Colin Baxter is the best lineman on the team and one of the best in the Pac-10; he should contend for All-America honors.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: WR Dexter Ransom, a junior college transfer, had 19 catches for 412 yards for juco national champion Blinn (Texas) before suffering a knee injury. If he can come back from that injury and qualify academically, Ransom - a 6-foot-4, 217-pound junior - could find a place in the Wildcats' rotation, especially with veteran Delashaun Dean gone from the team after being arrested on weapons charges. Dean is transferring to Texas A&M-Kingsville.
STRONGEST AREA: Arizona is deep at running back. Grigsby, a senior, has big-play potential, as demonstrated by runs of 94, 58 and 57 yards last season and the 1,153 yards he gained in '08. But he also has shown a tendency to get hurt. Still, when he has been on the sideline, the Wildcats have been able to maintain an effective running game with Antolin, who averaged 5.6 yards while rushing for 637 yards a year ago. And if both are sidelined, Arizona can turn to sophomore Greg Nwoko, who rushed for 273 yards and three touchdowns in limited appearances as a freshman.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Tight end was a position of strength when Rob Gronkowski was healthy. That was 2008. The oft-injured Gronkowski has left for the NFL, leaving the Wildcats vulnerable there. Senior A.J. Simmons is the most productive returnee there. He had 10 catches last season.
THE SCHEME: The Wildcats use a 4-3 set and tend to blitz frequently on third down. That's not likely to change even with co-coordinators Tim Kish and Greg Brown succeeding Mark Stoops, who left to take the same position at Florida State.
STAR POWER: This time last year, Trevin Wade was the "other" cornerback opposite Devin Ross. Then, Wade had five picks and nine pass breakups to upstage his counterpart and earn All-Pac-10 recognition. Also an effective tackler, Wade is expected to contend for even higher honors this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Junior college All-America Derek Earls gives Arizona a productive linebacker and bolsters a position in need. All three of the '09 starters have departed. Earls posted 108 tackles last season at North Dakota State College of Sciences and has demonstrated the athletic ability that suggests he can be similarly productive at this level, too.
STRONGEST AREA: Last season, Ricky Elmore posted the Pac-10's second-highest sack total (10.5), yet he's not necessarily the Wildcat's best defensive end. A strong case could be made for senior Brooks Reed, who was hampered by a knee injury a year ago. In '08, Reed had 8.5 sacks. A healthy Reed and Elmore provide an imposing pass rush. Depth isn't bad, either.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Although much is expected from Earls, the Wildcats are starting from scratch at linebacker. T tackle also is an area of concern because both of last season's starters, including All-Pac 10 honoree Earl Mitchell, have moved on. The remaining interior linemen on the two-deep roster combined for 17 tackles last season.
There are certainly issues in coverage, especially on punts. Otherwise, the Wildcats' special teams are good. P Keenyn Crier frequently boots 50 yarders and last season killed 13 inside the 20. K Alex Zendejas has been shaky at times, but converted 77 percent of his attempts in '09. He also nailed a last-second game-winner against Arizona State. Travis Cobb (kickoffs) and William "Bug" Wright (punts) are dangerous on returns.
Although Arizona remains the only team that hasn't represented the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl, an advantageous schedule boosts the chances of reaching Pasadena this season. Seven games are in Tucson, including league clashes with California, Oregon State, Washington, USC and Arizona State. The home-field advantage certainly provides the Wildcats an opportunity to get off to a fast start. After a season-opening trip to Toledo, Arizona's next four games are at home. That includes a possible Rose Bowl preview against Iowa.
The Pac-10 race appears wide open. So does Arizona's window of opportunity. True, the Wildcats have their issues, especially on defense. But every team in the Pac-10 faces a measure of uncertainty. Oregon and Oregon State have new quarterbacks. USC has a new coach. Stanford doesn't have Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. Last season, Arizona suffered three conference losses by a total of 14 points, including an overtime setback to eventual conference champ Oregon. With some improvement and a little luck, the Wildcats could pull out some of those close calls this season. Seven years ago, Stoops took over a program that was the worst in the Pac-10. Now, the Wildcats could be contenders for the championship.