Pre-season football predictions don’t favor AZ colleges

The Pac-12 and Big Sky conferences have held their media days, and football practice is underway for Arizona’s college programs.  So the excitement of college football is in the air again.

But, based on the pre-season predictions, Arizona fans are looking at another ho-hum year on the field.  The early media evaluations are not optimistic.

The University of Arizona Wildcats earned the highest kudos from the beat writers, with a fourth-place prediction in the Pac-12 South.  Arizona State is figured to be right behind the Cats in fifth place.  And the Lumberjacks up at Northern Arizona University come in at ninth (although the conference coaches gave them a little more encouragement in their poll, with a seventh-place expectation).

ASU and UofA both have new head coaches, so it’s hard to make predictions on programs that are basically starting over.  But in Flagstaff, Jerome Souers is getting ready to begin his 15th season as NAU’s boss (See 7/19/12 phxfan article).

After a 2003 conference crown, the Jacks have struggled lately.  Their best season in recent years was a 6-5 finish in 2010, and their pre-season predictions each year usually put them below the middle of the pack.

This year is no exception, but perhaps it should be.  They return 15 starters and 39 letter winners, have a senior quarterback (Cary Grossart) at the controls, a pretty solid offensive line with experience, and feature a Walter Payton Award candidate (Zach Bauman) in the backfield.

They posted a disappointing 4-7 mark last year, but five of those losses were by a combined 20 points.  So that record is somewhat deceiving.

On the other hand, you can’t use either Arizona’s or Arizona State’s 2011 records to predict this year’s success or failure.  Each team enters the 2012 campaign with an entirely different coaching staff, from the head coach down to the strength and conditioning coach.

So, frankly, neither mediocre pre-season ranking should be unexpected.  However, Arizona State appears to have the pundits somewhat confused.

The Sun Devils are one of just three teams in the Pac-12 to receive first-place ballots, collecting three votes for the top spot.  The other two recipients make more sense, since USC is projected win the South Division and Oregon is the hands-down favorite in the North.

And then there’s ASU, which is pegged to finish fifth.

One of the better prognosticators among the media, Jon Wilner at the San Jose Mercury-News, even had the Devils challenging Colorado for last place in the South.

So why the three first-place votes?

ASU lost its planned starter at quarterback, Brock Osweiler, who opted for the NFL draft instead of a senior season and is now in a Denver Broncos uniform.  So the new head coach, Todd Graham, is left to pick from a crop of signal-callers that has three top prospects with little or no college experience.

Graham does have a great running back coming back in Cameron Marshall, who racked up six games of 100 or more yards last season during a 6-7 campaign, but won’t have the top three wide receivers from last year – but will return Jamal Miles, the top returning receiver who also returns kicks and spends some time in the backfield.

Rich Rodriguez, the new Wildcats’ head coach, does have a quarterback returning from a 4-8 season, but Matt Scott has only been able to start a few games when last year’s starting QB Nick Foles was out with an injury.   Scott can throw, but last year’s wide receivers – the strength of the offense – are gone.

The good news is he will be working behind a seasoned offensive line, since most of those positions return.  The bad news is, that isn’t the case on defense, where the Cats will have eight new faces in the starting line-up on that side of the ball.

So, all things considered, this year’s pre-season predictions should be considered with some skepticism – for all three Division I teams.

There is just too much uncertainty this year to make even a good guess.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)