Last week’s loss to the Carolina Panthers that left the Arizona Cardinals just one game short of playing in this year’s Super Bowl was heart-breaking for those in the state that follow professional football.
But it was just the final painful blow for those of us who are also college football fans.
Looking back over the last few months, it would be hard to argue that the 2015 college football season in Arizona was one of the most disappointing in recent memory. And there was plenty of unfulfilled expectation to go around, from Tempe to Tucson.
Both Pac-12 teams let their fans down, while some much-anticipated individual performances also fell well short of the hype that had built in the off-season.
On top of that, there was speculation late in the season that one of the head coaches was considering jumping ship.
Overall, just a mess of a season.
The biggest fall from grace probably could be attributed to Arizona State, although that dubious distinction could be considered a toss-up. ASU was coming off consecutive 10-win seasons but finished the year 6-7, the first losing record in Todd Graham‘s four years directing the program.
Going into the season, Graham had called the 2015 squad the best he has coached, and more than one TV analyst agreed with him, putting the Sun Devils among their picks to be included in the four-team College Football Playoff at season’s end.
It was a roller-coaster ride for the Devils, who had been picked in the preseason polls to finish second in the Pac-12 South Division. They lost their season opener to Texas A&M but won the next two games before getting beat by USC by 28 points to get off to a disappointing 2-2 start – and then pulled off a huge upset in the next game, beating No. 7 UCLA on the road.
They beat rival Arizona in the Territorial Cup game and closed out the regular season 6-6. but then lost to West Virginia in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl to sew up the losing record.
Contributing in a big way to the lack of success was a defense that gave up 33.5 points a game. The loss of two starting safeties to injury as the season went along resulted in the defense giving up 27 plays of 40 or more yards, which was the worst in the nation in that category.
Meanwhile, down in Tucson the University of Arizona Wildcats won their opener against New Mexico, and then added a couple of more wins before the roof fell in. On a road trip through California, Stanford and UCLA hung a combined 111 points on the Cats.
They recovered to win two more games before finishing the schedule by losing four of the final five games – including the season-ending 52-37 loss to ASU. Only a victory in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl kept fourth-year head coach Rich Rodriguez from his first losing season in Tucson.
Adding insult to injury, Rodriguez’s name was linked to a couple of coaching vacancies before the team had a chance to play its bowl game. He even interviewed for the South Carolina opening and may have been offered the job. Arizona’s AD Greg Byrne said in a tweet that his coach had been offered the job, but turned it down. However, a number of media sources said there didn’t appear to be an offer.
Either way, it didn’t sit well with a fan base already disgruntled from a season that fell well below expectations.
And that includes some unmet promise for several high-profile players on both teams.
On the ASU squad, senior quarterback Mike Bercovici had started just three games the year before, but he set an NCAA record by passing for 998 yards through his first two career starts. That earned him a place on the Maxwell Award preseason watch list, which put him in contention for being honored as the best college football player in the nation.
And senior running back D.J. Foster, who passed up entering the NFL draft to finish out his career as a Sun Devil, had been included in some early Heisman Trophy talk after leading the Devils to a 10-3 record in 2014 by racking up 1,081 yards running and averaging another 53 yards a game receiving.
But ASU changed the way it used the multiple-threat weapon from Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School, changing his primary role to receiver, and his numbers couldn’t match up to his past contributions. However, he still set school records and became just the fourth player in NCAA history to compile 2,000-plus yards both rushing and receiving.
Bercovici threw for 3,860 yards and completed 60 percent of his passes. But any award-worthy national recognition for him or Foster faded with his team’s performance, as the Sun Devils lost their opener and then, three games later, were embarrassed by USC on national television.
And in Tucson, yet another major disappointment. Junior linebacker Scooby Wright III, one of the nation’s top pro prospects, won the three top defensive honors as a sophomore – the Nagurski, Lombardi, and Bednarik awards – and was being counted on to anchor the 2015 defense.
He piled up 163 tackles in 2014 – tops in the nation – and also posted 14 sacks. But he tore his lateral meniscus in the first quarter of the first game of the season, and than sprained his foot in a comeback effort. As a result he missed nearly the entire season and his 163 tackles fell to eight tackles, most of those coming in the post-season bowl game.
That has turned out to be Rich Rod’s last opportunity to use the once-in-a-lifetime talent to fuel his defense. Wright announced he will be entering the 2016 NFL Draft.
The good news for both Arizona programs…the 2015 season is in the rearview mirror.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)