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2016 is a critical year for Arizona football

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

There are no sure things in sports, though some teams, games and matchups are certainly more sure than others.

This is not so with the Arizona football team.

Talent-wise, there is no discernible reason why the 2015 Wildcats should have lost games in the manner that they did to Washington, a 49-3 pasting to a 6-6 team with almost as many freshman starters as seniors. It seemed that everything they accomplished in 2014, the first 10-plus win season since 1998, was reversed in a 7-6 disappointment in 2015, Rich Rodriguez’s fourth year at the helm.

On an individual basis, few in Tucson did anything particularly memorable. Quarterback Anu Solomon was a shell of himself from his freshman season, throwing for 1,100 fewer yards and eight fewer touchdowns. Only once in his sophomore year did he break the 300-yard mark, in a 38-30 loss to USC.

An argument could be made that Arizona, like its men’s basketball team, was simply snakebitten, doomed by injuries. Running back Nick Wilson missed four games due to injury and didn’t take more than six carries in a game one time after Oct. 10. Scooby Wright, the 2014 Vince Lombardi award winner, played just three games, sitting out the rest with a foot injury. Solomon, too, was slowed by injuries.

It’s fair to point to injuries as the source for Arizona’s demise, but not entirely. Before Wilson was hobbled with foot and knee injuries, Arizona was clubbed by UCLA at home, 56-30, in a game that wasn’t even that close, and 55-17 to Stanford. And, with or without Wilson, there is still no justifiable reason to lose by 46 to Washington and 15 to Arizona State.

It’s easy to wonder, then, which season was the true indication of the direction of the Arizona football program: 2014 or 2015.

Perhaps 2016 will tell.

Arizona is projected by Phil Steele to finish tied for fifth in the Pac-12 South, right with Colorado, a team that has gone 2-25 in the Pac-12 since coach Mike MacIntyre took over.

That’s a precipitous dive from 10-4 just two years ago.

The Wildcats do have the advantage of having one of the friendliest schedules in the Pac-12, ranked 37th in the country, one spot ahead of Washington State and two over Utah. They open with BYU at a neutral site and then host three consecutive home games, against Grambling State, Hawaii, and Washington. Also visiting Tucson will be USC, Stanford and Colorado.

Arizona, on paper, has the potential to reap more road wins than any team in the conference, visiting rebuilding Utah and hapless Oregon State. UCLA on the road, too, is winnable, as the Bruins lost more talent than any team in the conference.

The Wildcats are returning 15 starters, and are upper-classmen laden. Two seniors, Trey Griffey and Nate Phillips, and a junior, Cam Denson, highlight the receiving corps, while Samajie Grant, another senior, will take the slot.

The talent, and schedule, is there for another 8-10-win season. But questions will remain about Solomon, and which version will show up – his breakout freshman form or the setback sophomore one. Will Wilson remain healthy? Will the overall experience pay off?

Only time will tell, but this much is known: Nothing with Arizona football is sure.

2016 is a critical year for Arizona football

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