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Originally published August 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 19, 2008 at 5:50 PM

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Bud Withers

Pac-10 Preview | Arizona could end its long bowl drought this season

Arizona has not made a bowl game in 10 years, but may have its best chance in Mike Stoops' tenure.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Wildcats at a glance

2007: 5-7 Pac-10: 4-5.

2008 Pac-10 media pick: 7th.

Playmakers: QB Willie Tuitama, OT Eben Britton, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Mike Thomas, LB Ronnie Palmer.

Worth noting: CB Robert Golden has emerged as a possible threat to start as a freshman, reminiscent of Antoine Cason four years ago ... Stoops took the team to Fort Huachuca, an Army base 70 miles from Tucson, to train and mix with military personnel for three days.

Pac-10 previews

This seems a little hard to believe, but in a world that now includes a St. Petersburg Bowl and a Congressional Bowl and a bowl game in Toronto, Arizona hasn't been to a postseason football game in 10 years.

"We've been on the threshold, I can't tell you how many times," says Mike Stoops, who enters his fifth year as Arizona coach. "We're very optimistic about our chances."

Ah, those were the days: 'Zona was coming off a 12-1 season in 1998, it was just a little nip away from the Rose Bowl, and it began formulating schedules commensurate with the upturn in the Wildcats.

"At that point in time," athletic director Jim Livengood says rhetorically, "who's to believe we aren't going to be very good?"

A decade's worth of history proved the Wildcats weren't. But the games stayed on the schedule — Utah (twice), Purdue, Wisconsin, Brigham Young (twice), Louisiana State — even as Stoops struggled to extricate the program from the John Mackovic mess.

"I'm a great believer that if you sign a contract, you better make sure you honor that contract," Livengood says. "In my time here, and at Washington State, we've never dropped a game on the schedule we've contractually committed to.

"I don't know. Is that right? It's trying to do the right thing."

Those losses, and last year's defeats to programs the Wildcats should have beaten — New Mexico and Stanford — left them one win away from a breakthrough. But they've lost the Arizona State game the past two years.

Now the schedule won't be an alibi. Arizona opens at home with Idaho and Toledo and goes to New Mexico. Then the Wildcats have five Pac-10 games in Tucson.

This ought to be the year, or it might be time to find Stoops' successor.

He came from his brother Bob's Oklahoma staff before the 2004 season, all full of energy, resolve — and maybe even of himself.

"I was a lot better defensive coach when I was at Oklahoma, it seems like," admits Stoops.

That's a different way of saying that Stoops felt his defenses could be a bigger force in the Pac-10. Now, instead of believing his teams can win 24-17, he's resigned to the idea it might have to be 34-27.

"All of us as coaches might imagine you can change anything," he says. "You're not going to stop people. I don't know if it's players or schemes, but it's very, very difficult."

A year ago, with a wealth of defensive personnel back, Arizona allowed 27 points a game. Now, Arizona tries it the other way; it has 10 offensive starters back, including quarterback Willie Tuitama.

In his first year of operating a spread offense, Tuitama set school passing records for yards (3,683) and touchdowns (28). Of course, this is Arizona, so it's like being the best resort property in Afghanistan. In its 30-year existence in the Pac-10, Arizona has never had an all-league quarterback.

Tuitama could be that guy, in what looks to be an off-year for quarterbacks in the Pac-10.

"Last year, we were just learning the offense, trying to get everything down right," Tuitama says. "Once we did find that comfort level, our offense turned around."

Washington witnessed the start of the turnaround, allowing Arizona 48 points at Husky Stadium. The Wildcats then put 34 on both UCLA and Oregon before flaming out against Arizona State.

All-league receiver Mike Thomas heads a group of three returnees that caught 170 balls last year. The offensive line, keyed by tackle Eben Britton, is deep, and Rob Gronkowski is a specimen at tight end.

"This is the best group of players we've had offensively," Stoops says.

It's on defense where the Wildcats look most vulnerable. But, Stoops says, "Playing scared defensively is not a bad place to be. That's probably how I established myself as a coach."

Livengood stops short of calling it a make-or-break year for Stoops, but that's all but conceded.

"You don't need to tell coaches it's an important year," he says, "whether it's Mike Stoops or Tyrone Willingham. Nobody is more competitive than they are."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Schedule
All times Pacific
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 30 vs. Idaho 6 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Toledo 6 p.m.
Sept. 13 at New Mexico 5 p.m.
Sept. 20 at UCLA Noon
Oct. 4 vs. Washington 3 p.m.
Oct. 11 at Stanford 2 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. California 6 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. USC 6:15 p.m.
Nov. 8 at Wash. St. 2 p.m.
Nov. 15 at Oregon 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 vs. Oregon State 3 p.m.
Dec. 6 vs. Arizona State TBA

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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