Year of the Cats
With 16 starters back from a 12-1 team, Arizona is sitting pretty
Arizona coach Dick Tomey always has been able to fit his ego comfortably under his baseball cap. At age 60 he still plays for a Tucson city league baseball team. "They limit me to first base," he says of his teammates, most of whom are in their 20s, "and our second baseman has to have great range." Yet Tomey's modesty has limits. A visitor had barely settled into a seat in Tomey's office last week before Tomey began rattling off the Wildcats' recent accomplishments on the football field. "We've won 16 of our last 17 games," he said. "Only two Pac-10 schools in the last 19 years had a better final ranking than we had [No. 4] last season. We've finished in the top 10 twice in the last six years."
No, Arizona still hasn't been to a Rose Bowl. But with 16 starters returning from a 12-1 team that beat Nebraska 23-20 in the Holiday Bowl, the Wildcats could make a run for the Rose this season. They'll face their first big test on Aug. 28, when they meet Penn State in the Pigskin Classic.
Tomey avidly pursued the game against Penn State. "I just felt if we were ever going to play a preseason game, this would be the [ Arizona] team to do it with," he said. But during the Wildcats' 6:30 a.m. spring practices, Tomey has his players thinking more about archrival Arizona State than about the Nittany Lions. Last fall the Sun Devils were picked to win the Pac-10 but lost their season opener to Washington, went into a tailspin and finished 5-6. Lesson learned, the Arizona players say. "You have to understand," says junior quarterback Ortege Jenkins, "that you don't get anything for free."
The Wildcats say they're willing to put in the hard work needed for a great season, and Jenkins and senior quarterback Keith Smith, who split the signal-calling duties last year without a word of complaint, have infused the team with a spirit of unselfishness. The two quarterbacks were a dynamic duo: Smith (10 starts) would have finished second in the nation in passing efficiency last season, but he fell 15 attempts short of the minimum. Jenkins (three starts) made the play of the year, doing a flip over three Washington defenders into the end zone with :04 left to give Arizona a 31-28 win.
When Smith, Jenkins and three teammates gathered for dinner last week, the subject of preseason rankings arose. "How about 29th?" Smith asked.
"I don't know," senior wide receiver Dennis Northcutt said. "I kind of like the idea of being Number 1."
Judging from the table's reaction, Northcutt might as well have sneezed on the chips and salsa. Still, the Wildcats—who are likely to be ranked in the Top 5—know they will sneak up on no one. Tomey is quick to remind his team that Penn State won't be Arizona's only early-season challenge. A week after the Pigskin Classic, the Wildcats play at TCU, which surprised USC 28-19 in the Sun Bowl. In fact, Arizona's defense is spending most of spring practice preparing for the Horned Frogs' option. As an infielder, Tomey may have limited range, but as a football coach he covers all the bases.
Surprise Season Opener
Kansas Takes The High Road
The most compelling reason for Kansas to agree to play Notre Dame in the Eddie Robinson Classic in South Bend on Aug. 28? It may not be the $1 million payday or the Jayhawks' belief that the Irish won't do to them what Florida State did (blister them 42-0) in the 1993 Kickoff Classic. Actually, the main reason may be that the matchup gives Kansas a chance to make Kansas State the target of ridicule.