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CONSECUTIVE BOWL BERTHS IN 2008 AND '09 AND A 4--0 START IN 2010 had Arizona ranked in the top 10 and Wildcats coach Mike Stoops thinking he'd finally built a contender in his seventh season in Tucson. Then reality hit: Arizona dropped five straight games (and six of nine) to close the season, including losses to Pac-10 rivals Stanford, USC and Oregon and a 36--10 drubbing by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
After a season opener against Northern Arizona, the Wildcats face those same four teams at the start of 2011, which will offer the Arizona faithful an early indication of whether their team is a contender or a pretender. "These teams all have great quarterbacks coming back, so we have a tremendous challenge in front of us," says Stoops.
The offense will once again lean heavily on the prolific right arm of 6' 5" quarterback Nick Foles (3,191 yards and 20 TDs passing in 2010), who led a unit that last year averaged 307.7 yards per game. His most dangerous playmaker should be 6' 4" Juron Criner, who in '10 was a second-team All-America and ranked first in the Pac-10 in receptions and receiving yards. Criner, however, may miss the season with an undisclosed medical condition. This season the offense adds another 6' 4" wideout, Dan Buckner, who caught 45 passes and scored four touchdowns in '09 at Texas before transferring to Tucson after the season.
If defenses focus their attention on the outside playmakers, slot receiver David Douglas, an excellent route runner, could be potent underneath. He'll be the likely target when Foles is forced to react quickly behind an offensive line whose five starters have exactly one career start (by Kyle Quinn) among them.
The Wildcats will also rebuild from scratch on the defensive line after losing three ends to the NFL. Versatile C.J. Parish will move from linebacker to one end spot and team with speedy pass rusher Mohammed Usman to provide pressure from the edge.
Even with fresh faces on both sides of the ball, Arizona brings back a swagger resembling a team ready to compete for a conference title. "There's no reason we can't win the Pac-12," says Criner. "We've got a tough first half of the schedule. If we come out of that looking good, we can take the whole thing."
COACH Mike Stoops (8th year) 40--45 (27--34 in Pac-10)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Seth Littrell